ESPN values NFL over productive discourse

Last Wednesday ESPN suspended one of their leading columnists and TV hosts, Bill Simmons, for his harsh criticism of the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell in his handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence incident. The suspension is the third issued to ESPN journalists for speaking on the high profile domestic violence case. Both ESPN’s Stephan A. Smith (ESPN First Take) and Max Kellerman (Sports Nation) were suspended this summer for interjecting their experiences and opinions on domestic violence. Simmons did not comment on Rice’s actions directly, but rather criticized Goodell’s handling of the tape of the crime, which showed Rice striking his then-fiancee in an Atlantic City elevator.

Simmons made the disputed statement in his weekly video podcast, The B.S. Report, where he voiced his frustrations at the NFL commissioner and called him a liar with a few choice words, “Goodell, if he didn’t know what was in that tape, he’s a liar. I’m just saying it. He is lying. I think that dude is lying, if you put him up on a lie-detector test, that guy would fail.  And for him to go on that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted. I really was.”

Simmons was clearly agitated in his rant and he was not shy or completely professional in his criticism of Goodell. But the video podcast that has since been removed by ESPN, was not exactly a professional venue either. Titled “Bill and Sal’s 2014 NFL Degenerate Gambling Preview,” Simmons’ language in criticizing the Commissioner fits the billing but just because Simmons’ language was coarse does not mean his point was not relevant. Simmons ends his rant by daring ESPN to punish him for his outspokenness, stating, “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.” Of course ESPN did quickly reprehend Simmons for his comments taking him off all journalistic platforms for three weeks.

Tens of millions of Americans turn their TVs onto the NFL every Sunday and the league acts as a reflection of American society. The Ray Rice case makes it clear that it is time to discuss domestic abuse not just in the NFL, but nation wide. The NFL’s transparency with this case leaves much to be desired and warrants harsh national criticism that Simmons provides. In the episode, Simmons argues, that during the meeting between Rice and Goodell, “If he told Goodell exactly what happened in the tape and Goodell’s reaction was you are suspended for two games, you can’t go back and change the suspension.” Simmons doesn’t touch on the issues of abuse in the case but rather the NFL’s improper procedure and the double jeopardy in punishing Rice.

When it comes down to it, the NFL should have punished Rice in a much stricter fashionthe first time around rather than having to back pedal when TMZ made evidence public in early September. Goodell increased Rice’s suspension from two games (the equivalent of two weeks) to indefinitely after America was able to see the violent video. ESPN suspended Simmons for three weeks for discussing Rice’s domestic violence case which was more than Rice was initially suspended for committing the crime.

Unfortunately, Simmons’s suspension reveals that the NFL and ESPN are attempting to stifle a national conversation that American society desperately needs to have. Simmons’s suspension reveals a larger problem than one columnist using unprofessional swear words in ESPN content. According to The New York Times, ESPN is contracted to pay the NFL, $15.2 billion to broadcast Monday Night Football games. This puts ESPN’s journalists in a position where they can’t accurately report on football in fear that they might interfere with their company’s business. The NFL games and highlights are a large source of revenue for ESPN, and the network is at the mercy of the NFL to provide the content. Yet ESPN tries to balance quality journalism with its contract interests, playing analysis of Rice’s terrible crime right before commercial breaks encouraging the audience to tune in Monday night to watch the NFL, on ESPN. There is already speculation that ESPN reporters have been instructed to steer away from discussing and writing about the misconduct of the NFL in order to ease this audience discomfort and to keep viewers interested in watching Monday Night Football.

If ESPN is going to continue punishing their journalists, like the NFL, they need a transparent system of doing so or bias and inconsistency will surely follow. Simmons is arguably ESPN’s loudest and most influential voice, causing ESPN to make him an example and punishing him with the longest suspension given in recent history. Without a process, ESPN is just as bad the NFL, giving out punishments that seem to fit their business aspirations and in this case appeasing the NFL.

Simmons has made his name in sports journalism by playing the part of the sports guy and writing in a conversational yet passionate tone that friends would use to talk about their favorite teams. Unlike the former NBA stars and coaches that Simmons commentates with on ESPN’s NBA Countdown, he has never played a minute of professional sports, and his audience connects easily with this attribute. But this regular-guy, laid-back swagger backfires as his honesty and passion on the sports he loves has seemingly gotten the best of him.

As Editor and Chief of the ESPN owned website, Grantland.com, Simmons has created a sports website that is truly great, tackling much more than just sports in a well-written and approachable way. It will be fascinating to see if he comes though on his promise to go public. In the changing world of journalism, a giant network or printed publication is not needed to reach an audience; all you need is twitter and WiFi. Simmons could thrive independently of ESPN and the sports journalism world would truly benefit from his honest and passionate voice breaking away from ESPN’s monetary biases. Simmons returns Oct. 15 and the ball is in his court, but until than #freesimmons.

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