Sportswriters to Bill Simmons: ‘You’re No Martyr’

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As things go in this social media age, the Twitter response to the news that Bill Simmons was suspended for three weeks by ESPN for going on his BS Report podcast and repeatedly calling NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a liar for his handling of the Ray Rice situation was swift. (The podcast was taken down but is available to listen to at Slate). But like any news story these days, the tweets turn into thinkpieces, and the short opinions evolve into big ones in a matter of hours, and before you know it, people start talking about the more important matters (domestic abuse, the many problems the NFL has to deal with immediately), and the conversation becomes about something else entirely. 

The initial reaction was that ESPN screwed up. People recalled that it was just under two months ago when the same network suspended Stephen A. Smith for one week after Smith suggested that victims of abuse might be just as guilty as their abusers because they provoke those that might do harm to them. Obviously a bonehead thing to say, but the one biggest difference between the two suspensions, of course, was that Smith didn't come out and publicly daring his bosses to take action. 

Bill Simmons got his wish, and that punishment was swift and severe. But why, exactly, was he suspended, and why was it so long, and most importantly, should people be upset at ESPN for handing down the suspension? If you read the very damning Outside the Lines piece published by ESPN a week ago that broke down the timeline of what happened in the months after the Rice altercation in the New Jersey elevator, you know Simmons was basically doing what he does really well: boiling everything down into an easier to digest, condensed, and far-less eloquent way. He was standing up the behemoth that is the NFL, and the resulting suspension earned pieces like Danny Vinik's New Republic article, "ESPN Cares More About Protecting the NFL Than Reducing Domestic Violence." Right? 

"I think it's pretty silly to go on your own podcast and call someone a liar, absent proof. It even gives the NFL the chance to claim the moral high ground, which takes some doing," says USA Today sportswriter Howard Megdal, "There were ways to voice that opinion without forcing a confrontation and making it about himself in the process."

Think Megdal's trying to be contrarian, trying to go up and say that one of his own was unfairly treated by a massive company? The feeling across much of the media landscape is less up in arms, and often more ambivalent. This tweet by Bethlehem Shoals is the prime example: "I'm sorry, I just can't get behind a world where 2014 Bill Simmons is an emblem of journalistic courage and anti-establishment vigor," followed up with: "Basically, nice brand move, buddy. #FreeSimmons." While and ESPN the Magazine writer Howard Bryant used his 140 character limit to say, "There is also plenty of room to discuss @espn and the business relationships that loom over the work. This is not journalistic martyrdom." One doesn't work for the company that suspended Simmons, the other does, but their opinions aren't very different from each other. Judging by what you see on Twitter from his peers, Simmons isn't some heroic figure whose picture we should nail to the wall next to JFK and MLK. He's just a writer who said what a lot of us might be thinking, but maybe took it a little too far, and maybe thought he was untouchable. 

David Roth, a staff writer at SB Nation, and a co-founder of The Classical, sees it from both sides: "I think the suspension is extremely dumb and bad, of course, because it sort of objectively is – this is a an extremely corny way for an entertainment or news organization (or whatever combination of those ESPN is from moment to moment) to be, and does maybe more than ESPN would like to settle the question of which ESPN believes itself to be where its relationship with the NFL is concerned." Roth points out that the network's coverage has turned out to be "shockingly good and decidedly tough" after "predictable early genuflections and missed points." He doesn't believe it undoes any of that, " but it does sort of seem like an easy mistake to avoid."

On the matter of Simmons, Roth says the Grantland editor-in-chief, "also looks pretty clownish on this." While Roth admits to admiring writers like Simmons, he adds, "There's always the sense, for me, that [Simmons's] relationship with ESPN is something of a work, in the wrestling sense: He pretends to be too bad a boy for his Disney overlords, and they pretend to be mad at him. It's hard to say it hasn't worked out for either side, but it's also sort of hard to take it seriously, or to get too offended when they do the old dance again."

Moving away from sportswriters, you get a different feel for things. Newsweek's Alexander Nazaryan, who has often been critical of not just the league, but football itself on social media, wondered, "Was there something that @BillSimmons said that was untrue? Or was it too true, perhaps?" While John Williams at the New York Times remembered a very different, pre-Disney network than today's version: "I'm so old I remember when ESPN was irreverent." 

So on one hand, you have the sportswriters, the peers of the guy who just got suspended, who seem to either not care or just aren't impressed with Simmons or his actions. On the other, you have writers who don't primarily cover sports, like The New Yorker's Amy Davidson who believes that, "Simmons’s anger is absolutely earned. Goodell’s denial is absurd." You have two very different camps seeing things from two mostly different points of view. It's a strange media conundrum, the likes of which you won't see very often, one where some writers decry their own or don't come to their defense. It's good because it lets readers move away from the discussion and make their own decisions, but hopefully it doesn't overshadow the bigger issues that still need to be discussed that led us to this moment. 

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