ESPN is big. For children of the baby boomers, it’s so big we can hardly imagine life without it. In the same way Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon have come to dominate their fields, the Worldwide Leader in Sports is so central in our world that its financial and political power feel otherworldly. But one of the problems with big and otherworldly things is that, having the power to shape the world in their own image, they have little incentive to abide by the cultural and political values of the societies they happen to occupy.
When ESPN suspended Bill Simmons for suggesting in his podcast that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was a liar—and that he and his colleagues are full of “fucking bullshit” for pretending they hadn’t seen the tape of Ray Rice thumping his fiancée senseless before announcing a paltry two-game suspension—many quickly suggested that this was a violation of free speech. On the surface it may have appeared as such—and, I have to confess, my original position closely resembled that sentiment. But what is ultimately at issue is the otherworldly bigness of ESPN and the extent to which institutions like it can dominate cultural discourse by silencing speech that undermines their institutional interests. It would be nice to think that the Worldwide Leader would be secure enough to afford its employees the freedom to challenge figures like the NFL commissioner when they violate acceptable standards of moral responsibility or transparency. But moral responsibility, free speech and transparency are matters of democratic citizenship, and ESPN has not become as big as it has by cultivating citizenship. It has done so by capturing consumers.
Popularly nicknamed the Sports Guy, Bill Simmons began his career as a writer for the Boston Herald. But early on he recognized that the life of an up-and-coming sports writer at a big city paper meant covering high-school basketball and football until the old timers retired or died. Of course, the paper he worked for was more likely to die before the old timers, so the odds of covering the Celtics, Patriots or Red Sox before the age of fifty weren’t very good. Being young, smart and entrepreneurial, Simmons observed the landscape and, charting an unpaved course to an uncertain future, he started his own website in 1996 (BostonSportsGuy.com) and became his own editor. Without having to worry about traditional journalistic standards he was free to develop a multidimensional, interactive, stream-of-consciousness style of sports writing that was all his own.
Simmons tested ideas like publishing his email exchanges with his readers, and simply streaming a list of first impressions while watching a game (now known as “live blogging”), which helped him build a grassroots audience who wanted more of, well, him. And to his surprise it wasn’t the edited him, filing pieces with the sports desk at the Herald or moving up the corporate food chain at Sports Illustrated. Just him—the guy you liked talking to in your dorm during the NFL playoffs, or at the bar when March Madness came around. The guy you emailed and texted with during the NBA finals. The guy who knew more baseball stats than most MLB geeks could dream of reciting. The guy who was open to what the future held for American sports (soccer), nostalgic about the fading glory of the Olympics, and had an interest in the same books, movies, comedians and TV shows as you did. Freed from traditional conventions, he mashed it all together in a five-thousand word column that you actually finished reading in one sitting. His sentences weren’t always impressive, his paragraphs didn’t always hold together and many of his questions were half-baked, but even the imperfections were humanizing and endearing. At a time when sports writing was overpopulated with clichés and polished exaggerations, Simmons’s writing felt personal and authentic. It was such an attractive formula that Simmons, a renegade sports fan and Holy Cross English major, soon became the quintessentially cerebral (though not too cerebral) twenty-first century sports writer. The Sports Guy.
By 2001 Simmons’s website had such a wide following that ESPN had taken notice. Eventually the sports giant invited him to join up with them—and when he did he became, like his new employer, very big. Now, after thirteen years at ESPN, Simmons brings home an annual salary of $3 million and his net worth is estimated at $15 million—which isn’t bad for a guy who got popular by responding to emails.
Back in 2001 it probably didn’t take anything close to that to lure Simmons into the ESPN family of networks. Imagine, one day you’re in the hustle, scrambling to generate credibility, secure ad revenue, watch all the games, read the news and your readers’ emails, in addition to writing your five-thousand word columns. The next day you get a phone call that says you don’t have to hustle any more, you’ll gain instant international credibility, revenue flows like water over a dam, and all you have to do is make the five-thousand word columns you’re already writing better. When your favorite baseball team wins their first World Series since 1918, you can write a book about that (Now I Can Die Happy). When you want to undertake a Proustian exploration of the game of basketball, you can do that too (The Book of Basketball).1 Once you’ve settled in and want to branch out you’ll have funding for a mid- to high-brow sports and pop-culture website that you can shape and form as you see fit (Grantland.com). And if you move out to the new office in L.A. there’s a good chance you could work on that film series you’ve always wanted to create (30 for 30). Which is precisely what the Sports Guy has done for the last thirteen years, riding ESPN’s gravy train to fame, fortune and even an interview with President Obama at the White House.
But as Simmons’s podcast outburst made clear, while ESPN has given him the platform to cultivate a massive following and become one of the most influential figures in sports journalism, tensions are brewing under the surface. He has more money, fame and access to athletes and Hollywood icons at the age of 45 than most writers gain in a lifetime, and yet at the tail end of the tirade—just before daring his employers to suspend him—it sounded like Simmons wanted to say more. It was as if he was inviting us to place our ears against the door of the conference room where his executive bosses were about to determine how to reprimand him—and he knew it wouldn’t go over well.
“I don’t like liars,” he said, “The commissioner’s a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast! Thank you!”
And he’d be right: it didn’t go over so well, in part because it exposed a big problem at the core of ESPN’s mission. Roger Goodell is paid to make money for the NFL’s consortium of owners, and the most money to be made is in TV contracts. When you consider that ESPN paid $15.2 billion to secure the rights to Monday Night Football from 2011-2021, it isn’t hard to guess at the source of the conflict that led to Bill Simmons’s eruption. Somewhere between, “I don’t like liars” and “I get to talk about that on my podcast,” it sounds like the Sports Guy realizes he works for a company whose primary objective is to keep people watching, listening and reading, no matter how morally compromising its relationship with an organization like the NFL may in fact be. In the same podcast Simmons went on to say he was personally insulted by the NFL’s handling of its latest scandals and that no matter how much he likes football, “I didn’t really even care about the games yesterday because I was so mad. It’s obviously affected how I watch football, and it sucks. This league sucks! Like, I want it out of my life!” Surely it does, and maybe he does, but if so, wouldn’t Bill Simmons need ESPN out of his life as well?
As James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales reported in their mesmerizing oral history, Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, the leaders at ESPN “remain steadfast and unyielding about their one great mission: to aggressively dominate the world of sports for the foreseeable, and even unforeseeable, future.” Fulfilling that mission has meant securing live broadcast rights to as many major sporting leagues and events as is financially viable, and surrounding those broadcasts with spectacular production quality and entertaining commentary for easy consumption. It has not meant celebrating the inherent virtues of athletic competition, cultivating an ethical approach to sports journalism, or encouraging the values of democratic citizenship.
But shortly after Bill Simmons’s suspension on September 23rd, some moral and democratic impulses suddenly emerged, flooding the web with all manner of commentary, including a tidal wave of public outrage expressed via social media. Twitter lit up with angry fans, and neutral parties turned supporters challenged ESPN to #FreeBillSimmons. Soon thereafter the website www.freesimmons.com was launched, providing a list of resources for readers and listeners to explore the nature of the dispute, including access to the podcast that got Simmons in trouble in the first place (ESPN had already pulled it from their website and Grantland.com). As the #FreeBillSimmons hashtag gained a steady stream of activity and international support, the overwhelming sentiment was that the Sports Guy was speaking the truth and that ESPN’s response to him was an endorsement of the NFL’s suspected cover-up. By Thursday the 25th, ESPN was taking such a battering on Twitter that they felt compelled to respond, publishing a column from legendary sports writer and ESPN’s in house “ombudsman,” Robert Lipsyte. Where Simmons’s supporters attacked the credibility of the Worldwide Leader, Lipsyte assembled a collection of platitudes espousing ESPN’s journalistic integrity and affirming their exemplary reporting, while taunting Simmons to come up with “the smoking gun” that proves Roger Goodell had been lying.
What may have been interpreted as a substantial argument between two highly touted sports writers, however, was really nothing more than a shadowboxing contest within a ring designed and officiated by the corporation that pays both men’s wages.2 Seeing as Bill Simmons and Robert Lipsyte work for ESPN, and ESPN is in partnership with the NFL, when the Worldwide Leader suspends an employee for a “failure to operate within ESPN’s journalistic standards,” it is hardly any secret that those standards are necessarily linked to the same mechanisms that the NFL employs to increase its shareholders’ profits.
Missing the point altogether, Amy Davidson of the New Yorker asked, “Would a political reporter be suspended by his news organization for calling the President a liar?” If they used the same language Simmons did in a column, podcast or in the White House’s pressroom, they probably would be, but the real issue is that writers and critics at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post aren’t supposed to share a vested financial interest with the individuals or institutions they’re charged to report on. If it were discovered that one of those papers were in partnership with a business or political party, that partnership would need to be disclosed, at the very least. But that is precisely the relationship that ESPN carries on openly with the NFL (along with the NBA, MLB, MLS and NASCAR), which is why the Simmons affair is a matter of public significance that demands more serious reflection than has been provided by Lipsyte or Davidson.
Bill Simmons may want football out of his life, because if you have a conscience it’s hard to watch an NFL player knock out his fiancée and then watch the league’s officials treat the incident as little more than a potential image setback, before you start feeling bad about watching the NFL. But while the league’s well-documented history of hiding the truth in the interest of profit is suddenly making the Sports Guy’s skin crawl, neither he nor football fans who share his sentiments have found a meaningful way to hold the NFL accountable to any standard beyond ratings and revenue.
As Ian McGugen recently reported in the New York Times Magazine, the NFL and its partners are more effective now than ever before at capturing consumer loyalty, while expanding options to promote more consumption:
In the span of a few days, as most everyone knows, a video surfaced depicting the Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his future wife unconscious; then the Minnesota Vikings superstar Adrian Peterson was booked for purportedly whipping his four-year-old son with a tree branch. All the while, a clutch of other players faced the consequences of their own ostensible involvement in domestic-violence incidents. But as pundits wondered if the scandals could mark the beginning of the end for America’s favorite sport, the NFL’s television ratings surpassed their levels from a year earlier. The uptick points to a surprising reality: Despite all its current problems, pro football is positioned to not only weather its current storm, but also to sail through it toward greater prosperity.
Last year, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru’s startling book, League of Denial, exposed the lengths to which the NFL has gone to prohibit research of neurological damages sustained due to head trauma, while denying players access to long-term health benefits for fear of losing both money and consumer loyalty. But again, the NFL’s popularity only grew in 2013, so why would domestic violence or child abuse be handled by the league or its fans any differently? Furthermore, when you consider that ESPN’s most lucrative contract is with the NFL, how can any employee of ESPN not recognize that their jobs are necessarily linked to the NFL’s profit margins? Would Bill Simmons be anything more than the founder and editor in chief of BostonSportsGuy.com if it weren’t for the same league he now wants out of his life?
The question may be rhetorical, but it points to the fundamental misunderstanding between Bill Simmons, his fans, his employers and the NFL. The Sports Guy’s suspension may look like a denial of free speech, but what rumbles underneath the surface of the Simmons affair is a tectonic collision between the ideal of “free speech” and the ideal of “free enterprise.”
Again, one of the problems with big things is their own bigness. As McGugen pointed out, not only has the NFL become larger than life, it “has transcended sports to become a mass-produced, highly managed and artfully promoted product.” The same can be said of ESPN, where artful promotion and strategic partnerships are forged to secure consumer loyalty,3 an effort the Sports Guy has been a big part of since 2001. Now in 2014, it may suck that Bill Simmons doesn’t enjoy football the way he used to, but the NFL and ESPN are big institutions that share big profits and pay writers big salaries to play by their rules. Rules that are reinforced on a variety of levels, utilizing an assortment of institutional mechanisms to ensure that the foreseeable and unforeseeable future of sports entertainment will remain controlled by them, the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
To a certain degree, Bill Simmons probably already recognizes all this. But if he wants to do anything meaningful about it—anything beyond producing more outbursts and sustaining more suspensions—he will need to make a very big argument that can speak to very big problems, that cuts to the core of the very big institution that pays him a very big chunk of money. And while it’s highly unlikely that the NFL or ESPN will be persuaded to place the pursuit of truth or the virtues of democratic citizenship at the forefront of their missions, it would be a shame if the Sports Guy didn’t use this opportunity to expose the collision of ideals that is so easily masked by glossy production values. In returning from his suspension this week, Bill Simmons could call on his audience to indefinitely boycott the NFL until Roger Goodell is no longer commissioner, or he could suggest that Goodell take a lie detector test live on Sports Center. In so doing he would challenge his audience to consider watching the NFL as responsible citizens, rather than simply as fans.
Roger Goodell may or may not be a liar, but if contributors like Bill Simmons are contractually obligated to reinforce an inherently incestuous relationship between the NFL and the largest sports news company in the world, does it even matter?