The lesson ESPN is attempting to send — and certainly the lesson it wants you to believe it is sending — with its three-week suspension of Bill Simmons after he blasted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on a podcast is elemental to every standard employer/employee relationship:
You can’t dare the boss to punish you without getting punished by the boss. An executive doesn’t rise to the point where he or she occupies the coveted mahogany-encased suite of an office and has a secretary with a secretary of his or her own without calling a few underlings’ bluffs along the way.
No, ESPN’s decision to suspend Simmons, which was announced Wednesday night, is not a surprise, even considering his status as a personality of enormous magnitude, page views, and salary.
After a rant in which he called Goodell a liar — a rant probably applauded by the vast majority of football fans aggravated by the commissioner’s lack of transparency during various stages of the Ray Rice scandal — he dared his bosses to punish him for it. They had no choice but to take him up on the offer.
Given that Simmons’s suspension became a national story (at least one network morning show discussed it) and caused an instant social-media maelstrom (#freeSimmons became the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter nationally for a time Wednesday night), you may know the rant verbatim by now.
Here it is anyway, written out for posterity since the podcast is no longer available:
“Goodell, if he didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar,’’ Simmons said. “I’m just saying it. He is lying. If you put him up on a lie detector test, that guy would fail.
“For all these people to pretend they didn’t know is such [expletive] [expletive]. It really is, it’s such [expletive] [expletive]. For him to go into that press conference [Friday] and pretend otherwise . . . I was so insulted.”
A few moments later, Simmons figuratively heaved the gauntlet across the recording studio.
“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,’’ Simmons said. “You leave me alone. The commissioner’s a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast.
“Please. Call me and say I’m in trouble. I dare you.”
Can you imagine how the call telling him he was in trouble — the acceptance of the dare — must have gone? I’d almost rather hear that than have been a fly on Goodell’s caviar tray over the last couple of weeks. Instead, we have to settle for ESPN’s corporatespeak statement.
“Every employee must be accountable to ESPN and those engaged in our editorial operations must also operate within ESPN’s journalistic standards,” the network said. “We have worked hard to ensure that our recent NFL coverage has met that criteria. Bill Simmons did not meet those obligations in a recent podcast.”
While ESPN probably would prefer to never have to discipline any of its high-profile employees, it cannot be entirely disappointed about this. It allows the network to have at least the guise of holding all of its personalities properly accountable to a high standard. That’s something that came into question recently when Stephen A. Smith, chiefly known as Skip Bayless’s co-caterwauler on the insufferable “First Take,’’ was given just a one-week ban for suggesting that women can avoid domestic violence incidents by not provoking men.
Ignoring the absurd fact that Simmons’s suspension is longer than the two-week ban Goodell originally gave Rice, it’s an opportunity to prove no one is above the rules, not even someone with the multi-platform profile of the former Boston Sports Guy, who has ascended to staggering prominence as the impresario behind the superb Grantland website and “30 for 30” film series, among many other successes.
And perhaps it is an attempt to humble Simmons, who has run afoul of his bosses before and been punished with two social-media bans in the past five years.
This situation is a different matter entirely than being told to log out of Twitter for a few days, and one that lends itself to conspiracy theories that this is some kind of mutual publicity ploy. It’s not, though it is true that Simmons benefits from this in a certain way.
If you buy into the “all publicity is good publicity” cliché, his ban and eventual return next month should bring extra buzz to the debut of his “Grantland Basketball Show” on ESPN Oct. 21.
The reaction Wednesday night essentially treated him as one part conquering hero for ripping Goodell — something Simmons has done for years in his column, and something other ESPN employees such as Keith Olbermann have done with more precision but less colorful language — and one part martyr.
Simmons has become a rich man in large part by being the voice of the common sports fan, the voice who writes what you were thinking but couldn’t quite articulate. That’s absolutely the case here, and it is not artificial.
The don’t-double-dog-dare-the-boss lesson is the one ESPN wants you to pick up on. But one only needs to possess a modicum of skepticism to wonder how much of this is about appeasing the NFL.
ESPN has done some wonderful work on the Rice story, particularly Friday’s richly reported investigative piece by Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg that laid out what the Ravens knew and when they knew it. But ethical and journalistic collisions at an empire of ESPN’s size and reach are inevitable.
The network and the NFL are business partners, with ESPN paying $15.2 billion for the rights to broadcast “Monday Night Football.” Network spokesmen have said that relationship was not a factor in the decision. But when considering the still-unexplained about-faces done by Bill Polian and Cris Carter in the aftermath of recent candid and critical moments, it’s impossible not to wonder where the journalism ends and the partnership begins.
No one will need to remind Simmons that one of his previous suspensions — a Twitter ban for calling certain WEEI personalities “deceitful scumbags” in November 2009 — was with an ESPN business partner. As savvy as Simmons is, though, it’s hard to believe much of this is about business for him. It sure seems personal.
He’s going away now. But one question lingers: Will it be a respite, or will it encourage him to fulfill that threat to go public? Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait three weeks to find out.