As you're probably aware, ESPN suspended popular columnist, podcaster and all-encompassing media entity Bill Simmons yesterday for three weeks. At issue were comments he made (NSFW), on his podcast, "The BS Report," against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as well as his bosses at ESPN. Many, many fellow journalists, celebrities and other notable members of the twitterati have taken up for Simmons under the hashtag "#freesimmons." Not only was Simmons suspended, but the offending podcast in question was pulled from the archives and, even more egregious, the column from ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte praising Simmons' comments was also pulled around the same time, though an ESPN spokesman claimed that it was a tech issue and nothing more nefarious. That column is back up now, though the timing is certainly suspicious.
This won't be a popular opinion, but I wholly agree with ESPN's decision to suspend Simmons, even though I basically agree with his sentiment on Goodell and other NFL executives (primarily connected with the Baltimore Ravens) in their pathetic attempts to cover up the Ray Rice domestic abuse incident.
The reason I endorse the sentiment is because Simmons' profane volley at Goodell wasn't a protest that stood for something, and his "dare" against his employers wasn't a defiant act or irreverent rebellion. It was just the latest episode of "I'm Bill Simmons and I have a big ... ego." In fact, I'd argue that The Sports Guy, has a more prodigious ego than the top ten "diva" athletes you could name -- combined.
Simmons, who frequently uses the phrase "stay in your lane," when referencing things like comedic actors like Steve Carell or Jim Carrey who try to take on serious roles, seems to have no concept of his own lane. He rose to prominence online comparing athletes to "Teen Wolf," and previewing NBA seasons by using quotes from "Boogie Nights." He is not a journalist nor a reporter. He is, basically, one of ESPN's personalities, no different in principle than Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, or Chris Berman. He is not there for information or gravitas. He's there to debate LeBron James' place on the all-time pantheon and make fun of whoever's running the Knicks into the ground.
Simmons has not earned the right to criticize Goodell over the airwaves. In fact, he's proven, repeatedly, that he doesn't have the chops to do it in a professional and nuanced manner. He is not Don Van Natta Jr. He is not Bob Ley. He's not even Keith Olbermann. He's the guy who writes about "Beverly Hills 90210" and has written countless columns referencing porn stars. You don't get to talk to "Jack-O" one minute and then be the guy WHO HAS IMPORTANT OPINIONS ABOUT SERIOUS THINGS the next. It just doesn't work. It'd be like me, the guy who invented the nickname "Frenchy McWonderbutt," holding forth on ISIS.
The problem is in Simmons' apparent desire to have his cake and eat it too. He's grown so powerful at ESPN that maybe he doesn't grasp that he has any professional boundaries, or that he has to exercise any discretion at all. He gets paid a reported $5 million per year to write, at most, one column a week, half of which are mailbags that are, quite literally, mailed in. He does podcasts two or three times a week, usually with friends who have no connection to sports and would be unknowns except for their connection to him. Otherwise he's an executive producer for various documentaries, and the executive editor at Grantland, where he openly admits to delegating everything. He has a weekly podcast devoted to GAMBLING ON FOOTBALL, WHICH IS STILL ILLEGAL IN 49 STATES. Who else could get away with something like that? ESPN indulges him with Grantland, his passion project, even though, as of 2013, it wasn't exactly profitable.
All the company asks of him, presumably, for that massive salary is for him to respect a few basic rules. Don't speak ill of the network's corporate partners, don't publicly criticize other company employees or other media rivals, and don't embarrass your bosses. Simmons has frequently crossed the line openly or nudged right up against it so many times that he and his buddies Jalen Rose and producer David Jacoby even joke about it in podcasts or on TV, "Don't get fired, Bill."
Simmons has criticized Goodell, deservedly, numerous times in print, but he's achieved just enough credibility and developed enough nuance (or has a phalanx of editors working for him to develop that nuance for him) where he won't get in trouble for that. But as a broadcaster he doesn't have that experience and nuance. He can't make his points with the proper subtlety and professionalism without resorting to profanity and bro-down challenges. His producer isn't experienced enough to understand that simply bleeping the swears isn't enough when it would've been more appropriate to delete the segment altogether or re-record it after making some editorial suggestions. It's not like those podcasts are live.
Many folks are pointing to the irony of Simmons' suspension for criticizing Goodell being a week longer than Rice's original suspension for knocking his fiancee unconscious, but one really has nothing to do with the other. The reason Simmons was banished for three weeks is that this is hardly his first indiscretion. He was suspended for criticizing "First Take" in the past and for ripping into Boston radio station WEEI, an ESPN Radio affiliate. Rice, by contrast, was a first-time offender, though obviously his crime was a million times more serious than anything Simmons has done, and he should have been punished far more severely from the get go, which is the crux of this whole thing.
The most rankling part of all this is the premise that Simmons is some kind of freedom-fighting, first amendment defending rebel. Is he quitting ESPN? No. Is he cashing their checks? Yes. He cashed-in long ago, and has made a fabulous life for his family living in a mansion in Los Angeles and hobnobbing with celebrities and star athletes and accomplished all of it by swimming in the shallowest end of the pool from day one. Now that he's set for life he wants to speak truth to power? Would he have made those same comments if he was one of the lowly staff writers at Grantland, or worse, someone working freelance, just trying to make his next rent payment?
I beg of you, stop acting like Simmons' rant was about Goodell's corruption, or media conflicts-of-interest with ESPN's partners or anything else. This, like any of his columns or podcasts, wasn't about the subject. That's just pretense. It was about Bill Simmons, self-appointed sports czar, pontificating about how awesome it is to be Bill Simmons. The subject was nothing but background noise. Simmons openly mocked, defied and challenged his employer because he thought he would get away with it.
To paint it as some defense of journalistic ethics an insult to journalists everywhere. No matter how few there are left.