ESPN favors NFL over freedom of speech
On Sept. 24, ESPN — the self proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports” — suspended Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons for three weeks, in the wake of incendiary remarks Simmons made on his podcast, The B.S. Report.
The rant that earned Simmons his three-week suspension was directed at NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Simmons criticized the way Goodell handled domestic abuse allegations against Baltimore Ravens running back, Ray Rice.
“Goodell, if he (says he) didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar. I’m just saying it. He is lying. I think that dude is lying,” Simmons said. “If you put him up on a lie detector test, that guy would fail. For (Goodell) to pretend (he) didn’t know is such (expletive) … And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted.”
Grantland, founded by Simmons in 2011, has since garnered well-deserved attention and acclaim with its emphasis on thoughtful, long-form analysis of sports and pop culture.
In the wake of Simmons’ suspension, many have questioned ESPN’s motives in punishing Simmons and lobbied ESPN brass on Simmons’ behalf. A Change.org petition to ESPN to end Simmons’s suspension currently has attracted more than 18,000 signatures.
Last week, a top-trending Twitter hashtag was #FreeSimmons, with numerous media outlets and individuals decrying an abusive overreach of power by ESPN executives.
To accurately analyze the ethical implications of Simmons’s suspension, one must first analyze not only the nature of ESPN’s association with Grantland, but also the somewhat nebulous relationship ESPN has with the concept — and practice — of “journalism.”
ESPN provided the funding and traffic for Grantland’s launch and has retained a significant financial stake in its commercial success. ESPN executives have the authority to suspend Simmons, so they retain some level of control over the content the site disseminates and, therefore, feel that the content reflects on ESPN and its editorial philosophy.
The “four-letter network” isn’t boasting when it proclaims itself, “the worldwide leader in sports,” but neither is it promoting itself as a journalistic enterprise.
The B.S. Report opens every podcast with a stock disclaimer saying that “The B.S. Report is a free-flowing conversation that occasionally touches on mature subjects,” and profanity is a frequent occurrence on the podcast. ESPN, to date, has not censured Simmons’ or any other Grantland podcasts specifically for profanity.
But Simmons, consumed by righteous indignation, then upped the ante.
“I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell,” Simmons said. “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.”
Some have characterized Simmons’s bluster as a dare, imploring his employers to punish him. Two days after the podcast aired, ESPN obliged, pulling the podcast from its site and suspending Simmons for three weeks.
ESPN, by way of explanation, released only an anonymous, tersely-worded news release.
“Every employee must be accountable to ESPN, and those engaged in our editorial operations must also operate within ESPN’s journalistic standards,” the news release 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, and, as a result, we have suspended him for three weeks.”
It’s worth noting that Simmons’s three-week suspension is considerably longer, by two weeks, than the suspension levied against “ESPN First Take” commentator Stephen A. Smith, who urged viewers to consider what Janay Rice’s role might have been in the assault, implying that she might have been to blame for the brutal assault.
Some media outlets have characterized the Simmons suspension as a First Amendment issue, citing Freedom of the Press as a defense of Simmons’ rant.
Citing “journalistic standards,” ESPN suspended Simmons three weeks. No mention of journalistic standards was made in the wake of Smith’s suspension.
According to The New York Times, ESPN currently holds a contract with the NFL — worth a reported $15.2 billion, or roughly $1.9 billion a year — to broadcast “Monday Night Football,” the highest-rated show on cable television, through 2021. ESPN, itself — in the words of ESPN Inc. President and Chairman John Skipper — is open about what, and to what degree, the NFL contributes to ESPN’s entertainment brand.
“The value of the NFL to us is the ubiquity of the sport across our platforms all the time,” Skipper said. “It’s a daily product — we don’t have a day without the NFL. We do not have a more important deal than the NFL.”
And therein lies the problem: ESPN has too large a financial stake in the NFL to risk alienating the league with its coverage. Again, while ESPN may be “the worldwide leader in sports,” the network makes no claims as to its journalistic integrity, outside of its justification of Simmons’s suspension. Nor should it.
ESPN has exhibited zero integrity in its enthusiastic dive into a profound conflict of interest. On the one hand, there is money to be made investigating and condemning Goodell, but on the other hand, doing so with too much zeal or truth could threaten ESPN’s relationship with its corporate partner, the NFL.
ESPN is straddling an ethical fence, and is happy to do so. When it suits ESPN, it fancies itself a paragon of journalistic effort and integrity — such as in the Outside the Lines report Simmons was discussing, which provided strong, circumstancial evidence that Goodell was lying — but the craven network executives demur when the reporting threatens ESPN’s financial well-being.
Simmons took a stand when he justly castigated Goodell on his podcast. He was, perhaps, overbold in daring his bosses to punish him, but he did so because he knew what everyone now knows: ESPN takes care of its own, even if “its own” includes a corrupt NFL commissioner committed to protecting the NFL brand at the expense of abused women.
Simmons was insulted by Goodell’s brazen denial of any culpability in the NFL’s investigation of Rice. I am insulted by ESPN’s brazen suspension of Simmons, in the interest of furthering its monetarily beneficial relationship with the NFL.
ESPN’s behavior, ethically speaking, is reprehensible, but stockholders likely don’t take issue with the organization’s stance. It’s clear that ESPN holds itself to its supposed “journalistic standards” only when it benefits its bottom line.
Even ESPN holds an ethical obligation to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, whether it conveniently brands itself as “journalism” or not. ESPN should not benefit further from its deplorable mishandling of Simmons’s “rant” against Goodell.
In the words of influential philosopher John Stuart Mill, “(Evil) men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
Opinion columnist Kevin Cook is a creative writing senior and may be reached at [email protected]