I was reading a few columns this morning -- from Michael Erler of SB Nation's Pounding The Rock and Will Leitch at Sports on Earth -- on ESPN's decision to suspend Bill Simmons for three weeks, and had a few thoughts about it myself. But first:
Earlier this week, Simmons went on a rant about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his handling of the Ray Rice suspension. Simmons called out the NFL for their stance that they didn't see the video tape, calling it f------ bulls---, and called Goodell a liar. The podcast -- which has since been taken down by ESPN -- can still be heard here. Simmons, who has a history of run-ins with his employer, also said this:
"I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I'm in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. Because if one person says that to me, I'm going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner's a liar, and I get to talk about that on my podcast. Thank you. ... Please call me and say I'm in trouble. I dare you."
ESPN took the dare and announced a three week suspension for Simmons. The key point in the company's press release was that everyone on the editorial side needs to operate within the company's journalistic standards.
Immediately after the announcement, the #FREESIMMONS hashtag took off on Twitter. While there was significant outrage about the suspension, there were people on opposite ends of the argument, which I think best summed up -- in the best way that two tweets can actually illustrate anything -- in this way:
So ESPN publishes a big scoop, Simmons draws the only possible conclusion from the story and the company suspends him. #FREESIMMONS
— jay caspian kang (@jaycaspiankang) September 24, 2014
I'm sorry, I just can't get behind a world where 2014 Bill Simmons is an emblem of journalistic courage and anti-establishment vigor.
— Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) September 25, 2014
Gotta Hear Both Sides
In my opinion, there's validity to both of those comments. It's very easy to call ESPN out just simply based on their history of doling out suspensions, which has been a very inconsistent and sometimes confusing process. It should also be worth noting that the network has a television deal with the NFL, and just last year, they removed themselves from Frontline's League of Denial documentary which shed light on the league's ignorance about its concussion problem. The fact these relationships exist means that suspending any employee for their view on NFL matters creates a conversation about conflicts of interest. Though in this case, while I agree with Simmons and even applaud him for using his platform to speak out, daring your bosses to suspend you is often not a good idea.
And this leads to the second tweet above about Simmons as an emblem of journalistic courage and anti-establishment vigor. And I see where Shoals is coming from here, and to talk about this probably requires the very often discussed topic of Simmons and sports writing.
(I suppose this is where I should mention that I freelance at various places and have published at Grantland and speak with some of the editors there, but nothing I'm writing here is to try and take a certain pro-Simmons stance for my own sake.)
Simmons, along with Lang Whitaker, were the first writers I really gravitated to online. This was probably at least 15 years ago. ESPN's Page 2 and SLAM Magazine was a huge part of my foray into reading about sports and later wanting to make a career out of writing about it. People have criticized him for his pop culture references, the word count, and many other things, but I still very much enjoy his work.
When you're in the position that Simmons is in, as editor-in-chief of Grantland, it's natural to receive a fair share of criticism. There are people who are not in his position who will say: well, if I was in his position, this is how I would use my platform. There are great points there, but the point is you're not there, and he is. And he's there because he writes and talks about sports in a way that helps him connect to a larger audience.
There are a great number of writers who have done excellent work in the reporting of the Ray Rice case, and I do agree with Shoals that Simmons' rant is not any emblem of journalistic courage. Though, we should remember that this entire #FREESIMMONS movement is what's driving Simmons to be viewed in this way, and not something he's pushing upon himself.
Putting aside the irony of Simmons going on a rant about Roger Goodell while spending an hour predicting the point spreads of NFL games, I think -- whether intentional or not -- it's great that he used his platform to at least get some of his listeners to consider just how poorly the NFL has handled the Ray Rice situation and to ask some serious questions about the integrity of the league. Could his delivery and wording have been better? Sure. Could he have simply referred to the reporting that Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg have been doing on the Ray Rice case? Sure. But I do think his frustration came from a place of being seriously infuriated at the fact that the commissioner of a major pro sports league is throwing so much bullshit at us in public.
And That Feels Like The Conversation We Need To Key In On
Some would argue that the entire Simmons versus ESPN saga is worth discussing about at length, and who am I to say it's not when I'm read every article I could about it in the past two days and am writing about it here. But I do feel like we -- as sports fans -- need to continue to focus on what's happening in the NFL right now, their handling of the Ray Rice situation, and what they're doing to change that moving forward.
I know this is an NBA blog, and well, it's a Raptors blog to be more specific, but for anyone who follows sports, it's something to keep in mind and be aware of. How far can our individual awareness about these topics actually impact anything? I'm not sure. But it feels important to continue educating ourselves and keeping up with the information that we're being told by these sports leagues and to keep asking questions.
I was speaking with a friend yesterday at a bar -- while we were watching an NFL game, no less -- about how this entire Ray Rice conversation is already starting to dissipate. We started to wonder: where was the collective outrage when Greg Hardy was arrested and convicted of sexual assault? And where was all the outrage about the Redskins name for all those decades, until we suddenly became uncomfortable with it in recent years and now there's a huge mainstream push for Dan Snyder to change the name.
It's almost as if we all needed to see a video tape of what Ray Rice did in the elevator for us to really care about something like domestic violence. And it shouldn't. I also joked with my friend that these days, before I declare my love for a particular athlete, I need to run a Google search on him to make sure that there isn't anything in their history that would make me wrong for supporting them.
That's how things are for sports fans these days. It's a strange spot to be in. The Simmons-ESPN conversation is interesting, but I think if even in any way it moves us away from the larger conversations, it concerns me a bit.
And maybe that's really the whole point of this very long post, to continue pushing that awareness, and making sure we keep the conversation going and continue to hold these leagues accountable for what they are doing and what they're not.