Earlier this month, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made an anti-gay joke at the expense of Grantland’s Bill Simmons while the two were onstage in front of a large audience at a well-known sports conference -- a remark excised from a podcast recorded during the event.
The Poynter Review Project was curious about why Grantland edited out Cuban’s remark. After looking into it, we’re persuaded that Grantland wasn’t trying to protect an NBA owner by making a sophomoric joke disappear. Nor do we think the edit violated ESPN’s standards. Cuban’s remark -- for which he apologized -- was unfortunate, and left ESPN facing criticism no matter what it did.
Cuban was on stage to close out the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, a high-profile event that attracts members of sports front offices and bright students wishing to join their ranks. (ESPN is one of the conference’s sponsors.) He and Simmons spent an hour talking about all things NBA, from advanced stats and the league’s recent labor troubles to how teams are run and how they're marketed to fans.
Simmons has interviewed Cuban before at the Sloan conference, and the event always draws a packed house, eager to see two big personalities whose tongues can be gleefully barbed.
“I’ve known Mark for five or six years and this is either the third or fourth year we've done something at Sloan together,” Simmons wrote via e-mail. “He loves busting balls and I obviously do as well. We like each other. Those panels are pretty tame so we're always trying to liven them up -- otherwise people are going to zone out and start looking at their texts or Twitter.”
Things took an unfortunate turn, however, when Simmons said he liked the Kiss Cam in arenas. Cuban responded by saying that Simmons and his “boyfriend” are frequently featured on the big screen. He then hastily added, “Or his girlfriend, this is gender-independent commentary.” Simmons ignored that, pushing ahead to another question about the Mavericks’ arena.
“I can't defend the remark -- it just felt like it came out of 1987 or something,” Simmons said. “He was trying to be funny and bust my chops and ended up saying something dumb -- we both knew immediately that he screwed up. He tried to backtrack and I tried to move things into a different direction, because what else was I going to do? He was definitely more subdued for the next few minutes; I actually had trouble keeping the interview entertaining because he became a little gun-shy after that.”
Simmons said that, after the interview, he and David Jacoby, a Grantland writer/editor who was producing the B.S. Report podcast, discussed what Cuban had said.
“There was never a question it was coming out,” Simmons said. “It took us about 0.02 seconds to decide.”
Asked why, Simmons said, “From our standpoint, had we left that joke in the podcast, we would have been condoning it. We certainly weren't trying to hide the joke or protect Cuban -- there were 2,000 people there, including a few of my bosses, and 50 to 75 bloggers and writers.”
Bleeped profanity aside, Simmons said that was the only edit to the Cuban podcast he recalled. But he added that such edits aren’t unknown with the B.S. Report, and that the decisions about what to cut are his.
“We have whomever is producing the podcast write down any possible notes for either (A) a joke or remark that may have crossed the line, or (B) a section of the pod that's just boring or redundant that we can cut out to make it flow better,” Simmons said. “At the same time, I'm making mental notes for possible edits. We don't give guests the option of asking after the fact to remove a quote or comment -- we make those determinations ourselves.”
Such edits, he said, happen “very rarely and it's almost always to remove a joke that's a little too sophomoric. We've even joked about it a couple of times with our repeat guests -- especially with Cousin Sal [Iacono], who loves pushing the envelope.”
Every ESPN podcast that isn’t live is checked for content before it’s made available for streaming or downloading. Readers of the oral history book “Those Guys Have All the Fun” may remember Simmons’ complaints about remarks being cut from his podcasts. Since then, a disclaimer has been added to the B. S. Report noting that it “occasionally touches on mature subjects,” an addition meant to give Simmons more free rein, and responsibility for the podcasts has passed to the growing team at Grantland.
We think Simmons did a good job moving things along at Sloan. Confronting Cuban about a foolish misstep might have sparked headlines, but it would have marked the end of a more-interesting discussion about sports business, which was what the audience was there for. (And while it’s not directly our concern, Cuban’s subsequent apology struck us as sincere and forthright.)
Simmons and Jacoby made the kind of decision they’d made before as producers. The difference was that this time the exchange happened before an audience, which knew a guest had gone over the line. That was unfortunate, but we don’t see it as a clear-cut reason to handle the situation differently.