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Volume 26 No. 62
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ESPN Ombudsman: Net Had No Choice But To Suspend Simmons For Comments

ESPN Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte has addressed the net's three-week suspension of Bill Simmons, writing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has yet to be proven to be a "certified liar" and Simmons has "no license to call him one without more justification than 'I’m just saying it.'” Simmons has done "excellent work taking Goodell and the NFL to task up to this point." However, a case could be made that Simmons "undermined ESPN’s solid journalistic efforts" on the Ray Rice story with "some Grantland grandstanding." Lipsyte: "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." ESPN President John Skipper said that Simmons, particularly on podcasts, "has a tendency to slip back into his 'bad boy, let’s-go-to-Vegas' persona." But he believes that Simmons is "transitioning into an important influence and mentor at Grantland, and needs to leave his well-worn punkishness behind." Meanwhile, Simmons said that he "sees his podcasts as adhering to different standards than his column, closer to unstructured conversation." Skipper said that the "more important reason for the suspension ... had to do with fairness and the difference between commentary and reporting." Skipper added that Simmons "had to advance the story, bring some evidence, before he could make flat-out charges against anyone." But the "big issues here are some of the same discussed in recent Ombudsman columns." Lipsyte: "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" (ESPN.com, 9/25).

BILL OF RIGHTS: In Boston, Chad Finn writes ESPN is "attempting to send" a message with its suspension that people "can't dare the boss to punish you without getting punished by the boss." Simmons' suspension "is not a surprise, even considering his status as a personality of enormous magnitude, page views, and salary." ESPN "had no choice but to take him up on the offer." While ESPN "probably would prefer to never have to discipline any of its high-profile employees, it cannot be entirely disappointed about this." The suspension allows the net to "have at least the guise of holding all of its personalities properly accountable to a high standard" and serves as an "opportunity to prove no one is above the rules." Also, perhaps it is an "attempt to humble Simmons, who has run afoul of his bosses before" (BOSTON GLOBE, 9/26). In L.A., Tom Hoffarth writes the "solution for Simmons at this point should be a simple one: Cut all ties to the network that supplies you ample platforms in almost every area a journalist can dream about and just start capitalizing on your own brand going by your own rules." Simmons apparently "loves it both ways -- the freedom to go off, and the national stage with which to do it -- but maybe hasn’t quite figured out how the real corporate world really works here." Rules "exist everywhere for a reason" (L.A. DAILY NEWS, 9/26).

I TRIPLE DOG DARE YA: SPORTS ON EARTH's Will Leitch wrote when someone criticizes a "business interest of your controlling company, you do so knowing full well what you are doing." It is why Simmons "felt compelled to put his dare at the end of Goodell criticism." He "knew the business people would be angry with him." That is why ESPN's "claim that this is an 'internal matter' rather than a reaction to what Simmons said about Goodell doesn't hold up to any scrutiny." Leitch: "Simmons knew this was a sore spot, a stress point, for the network. That's why the dare happened. And that's why ESPN had to act" (SPORTSONEARTH.com, 9/25). The NATIONAL POST's Scott Stinson writes, "A high-profile commentator at an NFL broadcast partner shoots his mouth off, and the response is to protect the commissioner’s honour? Seriously: what honour?" Simmons "isn’t the martyr we need, but he’s the martyr we have" (NATIONAL POST, 9/26). 

A WORD OF ADVICE: POYNTER's Kelly McBride wrote whether people believe Simmons is the "sacrificial lamb at ESPN," or that his suspension is "really theater in the vein of professional wrestling, there are important issues behind the suspension that we could all pay some attention to." There is "too much content, too little editing." From podcasts to blogs to social media posts, there is a "fair amount of content that goes straight to the audience with very little editing." With "small changes to his rant, Simmons could have stayed within the boundaries of ESPN’s acceptable journalistic standards." Also, Simmons was "on solid ground when he called Goodell’s response 'f---ing bullshit.'” Suggesting Goodell "take a lie detector test was clever," but "calling him a liar went over a line, because it draws a conclusion that we cannot draw." Stars that "operate outside the rules of engagement leave the organization exposed." It is "good for ESPN to have commentators pushing the boundaries of taste and journalistic ethics, that’s what the audience wants." Provocation is "tried and true meme." But it is "even better to have a process that prevents stars and everyone else from blowing through those boundaries because they don’t realize it or they don’t care" (POYNTER.com, 9/25).