Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Bill Came Due

  One of my favorite sports commentators lost his job this week when ESPN President John Skinner announced that the network would not be renewing the contract of Bill Simmons. Simmons was the founder and editor of the network’s Grantland sports and pop culture website, the show runner of the critically acclaimed 30 for 30 broadcasts, an NBA commentator, and their most prolific podcaster with ‘The B.S. Report’ and ‘Bill Don’t Lie’ podcasts. Simmons’ contract runs until September but he has not been on the air or on the Internet since Skinner’s announcement. Since he will still be paid it is not a firing per se, but rather a way for ESPN to not give any publicity for a soon to be competitor.

  I didn't care for Simmons’ overt adulation of all things Boston but he didn't talk about the Red Sox too much and gave some of his Yankee-loving friends equal time. What I appreciated about Simmons was his podcasts. Aside from his two or three times a week B.S. Report and weekly NBA recap (‘Bill Don’t Lie’) Grantland puts out between two and five hour long podcasts a week. Skinner stated that Grantland will continue on its own without Simmons and so far that has been true. There have been four podcasts issued since the firing. None have mentioned Simmons.

   On the surface, I found the timing of ESPN’s decision odd. Simmons is mostly known for his NBA takes and was let go in the heart of the NBA playoffs. Negotiations could have been dragged on for another 5 weeks until the end of the NBA season before deciding to pull the plug. I figured there was a reason for the timing of the decision and I believe it was revealed on Monday.

  On Monday, the NFL came down hard and heavy on the New England Patriots for the controversy surrounding the underinflated balls used in the first half of their AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. The team was fined a million dollars and stripped of their first round draft pick next year and their fourth round pick the year after that. Quarterback Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of next season. This punishment was ostensibly handed down by Troy Vincent, the NFL executive president but if there is anyone that thinks the penalties were determined by anyone other than NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell they have not come forward with that opinion.

  What does this have to do with Simmons? Simmons is a rabid Patriots fan and is also an antagonist of Commissioner Goodell. Last July Commissioner Goodell suspended Baltimore Ravens running back two games for his arrest for domestic violence against his then fiancée. There was a video of Rice dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator. In September, the suspension was increased to the entire season once a video was released showing Rice knocking his fiancée out in the elevator before dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator. At the time Goodell claimed no one in the NFL had seen the tape (which was released by the entertainment website TMZ). A NFL ‘internal’ investigation came to the same conclusion.

  The NFL has an entire investigative division which is comprised largely of former law enforcement personnel and it is beyond my comprehension that they hadn't seen or heard of the tape. What seems more likely to me was that the NFL was caught unaware by the firestorm of public perception of the NFL as accepting of domestic violence after the tape’s release combined with the two game suspension which is half the suspension levied for substance abuse. Denying that the NFL had seen the tape was Goodell’s version of damage control in the face of withering criticism from sponsors and senators alike.

  It is one thing to say something is likely like I did in the previous paragraph and another thing to say that the Commissioner of the National Football League is a liar, which is what Simmons did on a September podcast of ‘The B.S. Report’. It is one thing to call the Commissioner of the National Football a liar and still another thing to do it on a national podcast broadcast by a company that has a 15.2 BILLION DOLLAR contract with the National Football League running through 2021 for the privilege of broadcasting 17 football games each season which works out to over 100 MILLION DOLLARS per game and then daring your employers to suspend you which is what Simmons did.

  ESPN obliged and suspended Simmons for three weeks. This was three times longer than the suspension given to commentator Stephen A. Smith got for suggesting that Ray Rice’s fiancée had some personal responsibility for her beating. I've always believed that if you want to know what a person or a company is about don’t look at what they say and don’t look at what they intend – look at what they do! Words and intentions can be disguised or reinterpreted but actions are quite hard to disguise. And ESPN’s actions say that calling the head of a corporation that is a 15.2 BILLION DOLLAR business partner a liar is three times worse than suggesting Ray Rice’s fiancée (who does not have a 15.2 BILLION DOLLAR partnership with ESPN) had a hand in her own beating.

  Simmons resumed his duties after the suspension and didn’t say too much about the suspension or Goodell afterwards but he appeared on ‘The Dan Patrick Show’ last week. When the conversation turned to the NFL’s upcoming punishment to the Patriots for the underinflated footballs, Simmons said that Goodell didn't have the ‘testicular fortitude’ to decide the punishment until he gauged the public’s reaction to the NFL’s investigative report which said that the Patriots “more probable than not” deliberately underinflated the footballs and that Brady was likely aware of the situation.

  I didn't think too much of the so-called ‘deflate-gate’ controversy at the time and today (you can see here what I wrote at the time) I don't think it was anything more than a team trying to get an edge if that much. I would expect the head of a multi-billion dollar operation like the NFL to carefully consider the public relations impact of any decision and I can't fault Goodell for that even if I think the punishment is way over the top. I can't imagine how badly Simmons would have ripped Goodell and the NFL on his own podcast but I am pretty sure that ESPN and the NFL didn't want to find out. By removing Simmons from his on the air duties before his contract ended, Simmons can only voice his opinions by risking the remaining four months pay due from his contract and possibly more depending on non-compete or disparagement clauses. It all seems too convenient to me and I wouldn't doubt for a second that the NFL played a large part in the timing of Simmons' ouster.

  I miss Simmons already but I doubt ESPN will. As popular as his podcasts and websites were at ESPN, they are no match for King Football. I can't imagine any sports network that wants to maintain ties with NFL hiring Simmons. I predict that Simmons will have to go independent until he can rehabilitate his relationship with the NFL which I can't see happening until a new commissioner is in place. Simmons took it to the most powerful man in sports. Last week the bill came due and the price was his job.