He likes calling people out.

Photographer: Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

ESPN Sacrifices Bill Simmons to Its NFL Overlords

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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In covering the NFL’s ongoing crisis, ESPN has once again managed to put itself at the center of the story.

The Worldwide Leader suspended one of its highest-profile personalities, Bill Simmons, for three weeks for harshly criticizing Roger Goodell. On his podcast, Simmons accusing the NFL commissioner of lying in saying he hadn’t seen the tape of Ray Rice punching his fiancee. For the record, that’s one more week than Rice initially received; as ThinkProgress put it, “ESPN suspended Simmons for criticizing Roger Goodell longer than Goodell suspended Rice for punching his girlfriend.”

Looking at ESPN’s recent disciplinary history, the suspension is puzzling, to say the least. It’s two weeks more than ESPN suspended Stephen A. Smith for blaming domestic abuse victims for provoking their attackers. Less than a month later, Smith went on another tirade, this time against National Organization for Women president Terry O’Neill, who had issued a statement calling for Goodell’s resignation, a not particularly controversial stance given recent events. Smith proceeded to blast O’Neill, a domestic-violence survivor herself, calling her “off her rocker” and dismissing her views as “the most ridiculous nonsense I’ve ever heard.”

Quiz time! Let’s take an unscientific survey: Of these four statements, which do you believe deserves the harshest punishment?

a)    On the commissioner of the NFL: “I think that dude is lying.”

b)    On a domestic-violence survivor: “I think this woman is off her rocker. I think she's lost her mind.”

c)    On potential domestic-violence victims: “Let's make sure we don't do anything to provoke wrong actions.”

d)    “[Whatever someone says after he punches his fiancee unconscious]”

If you answered d), you’re in line with public thinking. If you answered a), you might be ESPN.

To be sure, ESPN probably had an obligation to discipline Simmons in some way. We don’t actually know whether Goodell lied or not, even if we have a really, really strong suspicion that he did. ESPN also must be feeling a bit more pressure to crack down on its personnel after having to clarify some of the damning “Outside the Lines” article that described out an elaborate cover-up by the league and the Baltimore Ravens.

Simmons also basically dared ESPN to suspend him, knowing full well that the media giant’s cozy relationships with the NFL often renders Goodell untouchable.

“I really hope somebody calls me or e-mails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell,” he 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.”

“Please, call me and say I’m in trouble,” he added. “I dare you.”

We can’t be particularly surprised that ESPN took him up on his offer, but we can certainly be disappointed. After all, several ESPN commentators had begun to break party lines and openly criticize the league.

In fact, on Tuesday ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte posted a column praising the network’s voices for flexing “journalistic muscle” in their Ray Rice coverage. Simmons was one of three singled out: “The network’s heavyweights -- Keith Olbermann, Jason Whitlock and Bill Simmons, among others -- delivered their own verbal punches,” Lipsyte wrote. (The link now redirects to ESPN’s general blog page, but we always have cache.)

Simmons’s suspension negates most of the goodwill ESPN had built up in preceding weeks, reinforcing that the company, with its $1.9 billion-a-year Monday Night Football deal, operates largely out of the NFL’s pocket. #FreeSimmons may be the top trending Twitter search as of this writing, but it just goes to show you that, unfortunately, ESPN as a whole isn’t in the business of truth, but of reputation. For every mildly emotional Simmons podcast or vintage Olbermann rant, ESPN’s bread and butter still lies with those who can maintain the company’s elite status among the major sports powers -- with the likes of Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen and, inexplicably, Ray Lewis.

I suppose ESPN readers know better than most: Insider access doesn’t come free.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net