Debating the Simmons vs. ESPN Controversy

Bill-SimmonsWhat happens when two friends who both work in sports business start talking about a controversial sports media topic? You get the dialogue below between myself and Brian Connolly, a former MBA classmate of mine and founder of Victus Advisors. Here is our take on ESPN’s suspension of Bill Simmons.

Brian: First of all, let me preface this debate by saying that I’ve never been much of a “respect authority” and “toe the line” guy. There’s a reason I started my own company! So that side of me always gets a kick out of a public figure challenging the powers that be.

Russell: I’ve always liked Simmons, but this wasn’t challenging authority, this was flipping it off. He comes off way too full of himself, like a petulant child. What did he think would happen when he starts cursing and screaming about a media partner? It crossed the line from a media member stating an opinion to unprofessional behavior and crude accusations.

Brian: However poorly executed, I think his goal was to call out ESPN on their awkward/conflicted relationship with the NFL. He even said in his rant that suspending him for speaking the truth about Goodell would only make ESPN look even worse. And he might be right about that based on the online reaction so far from the general public and other media outlets.

Russell: Other sports media outlets are certainly trying to take advantage and make ESPN look worse by saying they suspended him because he called Goodell a liar, when I think they really suspended him for the manner in which he did it and how we challenged ESPN. He wasn’t “speaking the truth” – he was ranting an opinion and openly criticizing his own company in a very public manner. In what company or business does that person NOT get suspended or even fired?


Brian:  But doesn’t it seem like the vast majority of the general public thinks he was quite clearly speaking the truth about Goodell? Even ESPN’s own “Outside the Lines” reported recently that four different sources told them that Rice gave Goodell a truthful account that he struck his fiancée, despite Goodell’s repeated claims otherwise.

Russell: I just think there is a huge difference between sharing an opinion and “telling off” your boss and business partners in a public forum. He could have shared his opinion without getting suspended. It was the manner in which he did it that put him at fault.

Brian: I think he wanted to get suspended, though. He wanted a public debate over ESPN’s conflict of interest when it comes to the NFL.  I think a lot of people are just getting more and more tired of the for-profit news model where there are clearly several corporate agendas that come before honest-to-god reporting and accountability. The disconnect between our media giants and public opinion/perception seems to be rapidly expanding.

Russell: It’s great that he wants to voice out against conflicts of interest, but I’m sure he also wants ESPN to keep funding Grantland. If he wants “purity”, he can quit and go do something on his own.

Brian: I do agree with you on that last point to a certain extent. Simmons certainly had the opportunity to start Grantland on his own, but he chose to take ESPN’s guaranteed money and promotional platform. I’m sure he knew the trade-offs. It’s almost like he needs to push the boundaries and get himself suspended every once in a while so he can tell himself he’s not “selling out”!

Russell: Yep, he wants the ESPN financial engine. Not just for Grantland, but also for his “30 for 30” film series.

Brian: At least we can agree on that!

7 thoughts on “Debating the Simmons vs. ESPN Controversy

  • September 25, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Bill could easily crowdfund $5M for a new Grantland, own 100% of his distro, and become the media net. He doesn’t need a platform.

    Turner, etc would sell the farm for Bill to become their Skipper.


  • September 25, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    Yep Chris, and he probably could have done that years ago, which only adds credence to Russell’s point at the end. Simmons knew what he was signing up for when he chose to take ESPN’s money instead of going out on his own…

  • September 25, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    “He wasn’t ‘speaking the truth’ – he was ranting an opinion and openly criticizing his own company in a very public manner.”

    Well, where do you draw the line? Under that rationale, does it make a difference that Simmons delivered a screaming rant rather than a calm, lucid argument? If he’d written a reasoned, thoughtful column opining that Goodell’s behavior doesn’t square with the facts as we know them, doesn’t that still qualify as “openly criticizing his own company in a very public manner”?

    I don’t deny that Simmons was essentially grandstanding and trying to generate controversy, but I don’t see why his intent matters. I also understand that he’s an employee of ESPN, and that the company obviously frowns on him castigating one of its media partners. I’m just concerned that the logical extension of this argument is that ESPN employees can’t criticize their media partners AT ALL, much less with such vitriol. At that point, ESPN’s business partnerships basically strip it of all journalistic independence. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.

  • September 25, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    Jeremy – if they didn’t have journalistic independence, there’s not way that OTL story runs. And other ESPN personalities have openly disagreed with Roger Goodell. What you can’t do is curse and yell at them, and then challenge your own boss to do something about it. Anyone who tries that gets fired – he just got suspended.

  • September 30, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    Great discussion Russell & Brian, I’m in the #FreeSimmons camp even though I agree he dared them to suspend him. That is why they brought him in to be the voice of the fan and talk to fans like a sports bar conversation. Don’t buy the who needs who discussion both have done very well out of Grantland and 30 for 30 but ESPN were in a bind when OTL called Goodall a liar and they wonder why Simmons was fired up? That is what they got him to ESPN for, he is the new version of shock jock. I think it was poor by ESPN to take 2 days to do something and they didn’t pull the podcast so they weren’t THAT concerned as eyeballs and ears are still very important and Simmons is delivering on those for ESPN.

  • October 7, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    I feel like Simmons had every right to say everything that he said, he just went about it in the wrong manner. Everyone is entitled to free speech and their opinion, but when you go on a rant about your employer and call out a big media giant like ESPN there are going to be repercussions. I really like Jeremy’s comment about the way in which this rant was delivered. I think if it had of been a well thought out column or something to that effect like Jeremy suggests, then it wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. However, he was on a podcast and was just flipping out. This leads me to believe that he was just kind of going at this on a whim and probably didn’t have a statement or his thoughts written down to reference. If he wanted to say all of these things, he should have done it in a completely different way and then maybe he wouldn’t be in this situation.
    As for ESPN, I think they took the right steps in the handling of this event. They addressed it in a timely manner and took action against Simmons. As for Simmons, I believe he needs to go on the record and tell everyone exactly what he meant and what he was trying to do with his rant. ESPN will need to clear up some of the accusations that Simmons made as well. They need to figure out if Goodell did have this information or not, and that is easier said than done. Goodell and the NFL look bad enough as it is and when you add Simmons rant about ESPN and the league, it doesn’t help their image any either.

  • October 8, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Sean is exactly right. ESPN knew what they were signing up for when they brought Bill Simmons into the family. As opposed to simply being an NBA, Boston Celtic homer analyst, Simmons has transitioned into an everyday face for the organization — A face that the media and fans, for the most part, love to hear voice his opinion. While Simmons did take a jab at his company, ESPN didn’t make the right move in suspending him. At a time when many of their own reporters, in addition to those from other networks and organizations, are criticizing Goodell and the NFL, they can’t pull the plug on the very one that’s it’s most expected to come from. Simmons made his living on voicing his opinion (see Grantland). Yanking him from televisions, while other mild-mannered anchors and reporters such as Adam Schefter stay firmly in their place, possibly due to their success, doesn’t provide a favorable look for a company that is continuing to be hated on in a large scale by media and viewers alike.

    Austin, as you alluded to, images for all parties are deteriorating in these circumstances. Given this occurred on a podcast, it already was less known until attention was brought to it. ESPN only added to the matter by suspending him. Therefore in suspending him, they bring more attention to themselves in the regard that it appears they’re back up Goodell, who Simmons was ranting on. A column, which would have likely been posted on Grantland, may have helped, but being a vocal person, Simmons may have just been the one ESPN employee to take the fall for them all because his characteristics fits the bill for someone whose actions would warrant it. — Justified or not.

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