Strengths, weaknesses and suspensions

Roger Goodell is the sports world’s villain du jour, but until the NFL’s elevator of investigation reaches the top -- or ESPN delivers a smoking gun that proves when the NFL viewed the Ray Rice video -- the commissioner is not a certified liar.

And Bill Simmons has no license to call him one without more justification than “I’m just saying it.”

Simmons is a columnist, podcast host, NBA analyst and editor-in-chief of ESPN-owned Grantland.com, and he did, in fact, call Goodell a “liar” in a podcast earlier this week. And ESPN in turn suspended him across all platforms for three weeks, citing his failure to meet journalistic “obligations.”

A case could be made that Simmons, who had done excellent work taking Goodell and the NFL to task up to this point, undermined ESPN’s solid journalistic efforts on the Rice story with some Grantland grandstanding. I don’t think that was his intent; Simmons tends to follow his passions as if they were truths, especially in podcasts, where he seems to act as if he is alone with a friend at the bar.

The following snippet of podcast transcription is not the way he writes his column.

“Goodell, if he didn't know what was on that tape, he's a liar,” Simmons said. “I'm just saying it. He is lying. I think that dude is lying. If you put him up on a lie detector test that guy would fail. ... And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted.”

Well, I was insulted, too. The past two Ombudsman columns had to do with the network’s still-evolving standards and practices guidelines, its inconsistent punishment policy (or lack thereof), and the excellent job it has done covering Rice and Goodell in the current case of domestic violence and its apparent cover-up.

Strengths and weaknesses

Simmons is, in my opinion, ESPN’s franchise player but by no stretch a leading journalist. On his 45th birthday Thursday, my gift to him was recounting my favorite quote from basketball coach Butch van Breda Kolff: “Everyone’s strength is their weakness.” He said he liked it.

In Simmons’ case, it has to do with his driving energy and creativity, which can morph into tunnel vision and self-absorption. What makes him always think that something’s right just because he thinks it is? Or that his sometimes loopy declarations are easy to interpret? Another provocative transcription from that podcast (since pulled by ESPN):

“I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I'm in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell,” Simmons said. “Because if one person says that to me, I'm going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner's a liar, and I get to talk about that on my podcast. Thank you. … Please, call me and say I'm in trouble. I dare you.”

It sounded a little like Gary Hart’s nutty 1987 dare to the media to catch him in the act of adultery. That challenge eventually denied Hart a presidential bid. In Simmons’ case, the “dare” was widely interpreted as a challenge to ESPN President John Skipper, who just happens to be Simmons’ most important booster at the company. When asked, Simmons refused to comment on whether it was directed at Skipper.

But Skipper certainly thought it was, and that insubordination was one of the main two reasons for the severity of the suspension. Particularly on podcasts, Skipper said, Simmons has a tendency to slip back into his “bad boy, let’s-go-to-Vegas” persona. Simmons, Skipper believes, is transitioning into an important influence and mentor at Grantland and needs to leave his well-worn punkishness behind.

Simmons, in our conversation, alluded to that, as well. He said he sees his podcasts as adhering to different standards than his column, closer to unstructured conversation.

The more important reason for the suspension, Skipper said, had to do with fairness and the difference between commentary and reporting. Both have been on exemplary display of late, as ESPN did its journalism proud covering Rice and Goodell -- including a terrific story arc by Don Van Natta Jr. that chronicled the league's and the Baltimore Ravens’ myriad missteps that led to Rice’s suspension. Skipper said Simmons had to advance the story, bring some evidence, before he could make flat-out charges against anyone.

Almost all of my voluminous mail since ESPN announced the suspension Wednesday has supported Simmons. Connor Nolan of Tucson, Arizona, called the decision “absolutely shameful. Bill Simmons' fiery opinions are what make him a great asset to your organization and silencing him because you don't like what he said or the way he said it is an absolute disgrace.”

Dave Movius of Cleveland took a longer perspective, writing, “It appears that the only debate ESPN truly embraces is the NFL's debate over what programming it wants to bury. ‘Playmakers?’ Gone before the fiction could be revealed as the truth. ‘Frontline?’ Not credible enough for ESPN to cede even a little on-air ‘editorial’ control. Now, Simmons (who I don't even particularly like) says what everyone is thinking -- including the predictably unhappy response by the network -- and ESPN takes the bait, hook, line and sinker. I'm not sure whose skin is thinner: ESPN's or the NFL's.”

Obviously I disagree with both letters, which were typical of others in the mailbag. And including Simmons’, there is plenty of thin skin to go around. But the big issues here are some of the same discussed in recent Ombudsman columns. Is anybody watching the baby? Who reviews content, such as podcasts, before posting? Do the people who review Simmons’ work report to him? Producers and editors are supposed to vet content before it hits the fans, even if the content is generated by a franchise player.

Sometimes that means keeping the reins on network superstars, challenging them, holding them to the highest of standards. That can be hard if you are working for the superstar.

Strengths are weaknesses, and both ESPN and Simmons need to acknowledge, address and take action against that fact if they want to achieve appropriate standards.