ESPN suspends Bill Simmons for criticism of Roger Goodell

Bill Simmons doubled down on his contention that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell lied during Deflategate. But Simmons also questioned his decision not to edit out that line from the ESPN podcast that got him suspended for two weeks in September 2014, a sanction that served as the flashpoint for his deteriorating relationship with the network. In May, ESPN announced it would not be renewing Simmons’s contract, and he has since moved on to HBO.

“I stand by everything I said about [Goodell]. I thought he was lying. It was borne out correct: The guy did lie,” Simmons said.

Author Malcolm Gladwell, Simmons’s guest on the podcast, agreed.

“He’s either dumb or a liar, and it’s quite possible he’s a little bit of both,” he said. “There’s a continuum here, and I don’t know if he’s more on the lying end or the dumb end, but I’m open to suggestion on it.”

But Simmons also expressed regret that he wasn’t a little more careful with his comments about Goodell, which led ESPN to suspend him for two weeks. It was all because he was really, really busy:

I’m not saying I was blameless with anything. I mean, when I did that podcast with Goodell, we took stuff out of my podcast all the time. My whole thing with the podcast was: “The third rail is sitting right over there. You gotta be really careful walking toward it, you don’t want to touch it, but sometimes it’s fun to get really close.” And the good thing about podcasts is you can touch the rail, and if you realize that you touched it and get electrocuted, you go, “Yeah, we should take that out.” And we did that a bunch of times. But the irony of what happened with that podcast was when I did it, I was mad about a lot of stuff that was going on behind the scenes. … I was working my [butt] off. I was about to do a six-hour taping session with Jalen Rose, where we did our little NBA YouTube previews. So we were about to be in a studio for six solid hours. … I had done that podcast that day and I went right from the podcast to the studio to do six straight hours. And a couple of my people were texting me, like, “Hey man, you wanna listen to that podcast before it goes up? You know, you got pretty into that one.” [And I said], “No, that’s fine, it’s okay, just go with it.” And I never listened to it. And if I had heard, I would have said, “You know what … I don’t think that’s worth it.” … I would have taken it out. …

But my issue, and the mistake I made, and the thing I feel really badly about is that I had all these people who were counting on me. I got 50 people working for that Web site in some capacity, full-time, part-time. And if I’m gonna push the envelope like I did, first of all, you gotta know where the line is because the last thing I want to do is put all those people in a bad spot. And then secondly, just as a staff we should have realized, “Hey, is this worth it?” We should have held the podcast. We should have talked about it. We should have had a meeting about it. And I was in a room with Jalen for six hours. … It’s almost like when you watch a baseball game and somebody makes an error and they lose the game. … And you think, “Maybe that error was a symptom of something bigger.” And in our case, I was overworked, and I should have listened to that podcast, and I was doing too many things, and we should have taken our time with it, and we didn’t. So that really set the tone for a really bad next eight months.

The two also talked about Grantland, the Simmons-created pop culture and sports sub site that ESPN killed off on Friday. Gladwell seemed dumbstruck that ESPN would make such a move:

Gladwell: It’s insanity. A brand is created … that is fresh and new and edgy and it has an incredibly loyal following. It has international recognition, and then they decide to shut it down. … Do you know how hard it is to create a brand-new media brand today? It’s pretty hard. For ESPN to turn around and say, “Well,” and kind of flush it down the toilet, it’s just bizarre to me. … ESPN is a really weird institution. On the one hand, it cultivates this image of edginess, transgressiveness, youth-oriented bad boys. … But every time they had an opportunity to back that up — that edginess, that transgressiveness — they behave like a bank. … To me the lesson of the whole fallout of Grantland is how terrified the bosses of ABC and Disney and ESPN were with controversy. Which is bizarre, because they’re in the controversy business. That’s what you try to do when you’re in the business of sports journalism is generate emotion and controversy over something we’re passionate about. Every time one of those opportunities pops up, they behave like they’re Goldman Sachs and you have criticized the managing director of equity research. Like, for example, the whole thing about you and Goodell. I don’t know what happened, but I’m gonna guess Roger Goodell got on the phone with the head of ABC and said, “I’m very unhappy with what Simmons said about me on the show.” Now, the appropriate response for whoever it was he called would be to say, “Roger, I feel your pain, we have a great partnership, I want nothing more than to be fair with you, why don’t you go on Simmons’s podcast and defend yourself.” That’s called journalism.

Simmons: He’s a robot, he never would have done that.

Gladwell: I know but … that’s the appropriate response on the part of ESPN, right? “We’re a journalistic organization. If you don’t like the way you’re treated, I’m offering you 45 minutes with Simmons to make your case.” And then they should have called you up and said, “Look, you don’t have any choice, Goodell’s coming on your show.” And by the way, you would have said “fantastic,” right? But instead they acted like it was the Kremlin in 1948 and someone had criticized Stalin. It doesn’t make any sense to me.

Simmons also railed against what he sees as the corporate callousness that led ESPN to eliminate Grantland:

But the way they handled the Web site, from the moment they decided they weren’t gonna renew my contract — which I found out about on Twitter, which all of my staff found out about on Twitter, every single person who worked for me and with me — all the way through what happened last week, it was all the same issue. It was the fact that they didn’t communicate with the staff. The staff was really scared about the future of the site. They were scared with where it was going. They didn’t know who the leader was in place of me. I mean, I hired every person that worked there. I was the person, for lack of a better word, the father figure almost, and the site was the site I came up with, and I was generating a lot of the ideas that led to what the site became and then delegating to all these people that I had hired. And we had like this awesome, awesome thing. And you can’t just change that in a minute, you know? There’s gonna be ramifications and repercussions. And if you do change it, you have to make people feel good about how it played out. And they just didn’t. And from the get-go, they acted very corporate about it. People found out about the new editor-in-chief on Twitter, for the most part. I think only 25 percent of the staff knew in the moment; everybody else found out after the fact. When you handle things that way, it goes from there, you know, so your point about a corporation and how a corporation handles things, this was the perfect example of it. They handled it like a corporation from May on. And that’s the thing: It was like, we’re a really creative company and it didn’t always used to be like that. To me, that was the part I think I lost.

Simmons described his role as the idea guy at Grantland, not the bean-counter, while also expressing surprise that the site never was a money-maker for ESPN:

Simmons: I knew that, the moment something bad happened or if I left, or whatever, I knew the rhetoric would spin that the site didn’t make enough money.

Gladwell: No magazine has ever made money it its first two or three years.

Simmons: Well that’s true, but we should have made a lot more money than we did, and part of this is my fault, because I always felt like: “Listen, just worry about the words, the people are gonna come. Worry about the quality.” The staff can back me up, I never looked at the pageview stuff, I never cared about that. I never cared that so-and-so’s piece did X amount of traffic compared to another person’s piece. I was worried about the overall calibration and quality of the site, and I felt like in the long run we were going to win. But when the business stuff started and we need to keep growing the site, they were like, “Look, the site’s not raking in the cash.” And I’m like: “That’s not possible, we have the best advertising demo there is. That doesn’t make sense. Explain this to me.” It was really amazing to me. We had a sponsored studio that wasn’t sponsored. … How hard is it to get a sponsor? “SportsNation” has a sponsor. … So it was frustrating.

He also claimed — again — that the site was understaffed, a notion that has been questioned by media observers, but that his team’s sense of spirit carried the day.

“The thing they underestimated probably was the culture of the site, and that people were pretty close, and the relationships,” he said. “We were always a little understaffed, which is just the way it is. But it’s easier to get people to work harder than usual when they really believe in the site and they believe in everybody that works for it.”

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