Inside ESPN's Decision To Suspend Bill Simmons Following Rant
It was around 5:00pm ET Wednesday afternoon when Marie Donoghue, one of ESPN's highest-ranking female execs, picked up the phone in the network's Manhattan office to call Bill Simmons. Donoghue, who has developed a good relationship with the star columnist over the years, had a tough message to deliver. ESPN decided to suspend Simmons for three weeks without pay. On his BS Report podcast that was posted two days earlier, Simmons dared his bosses to reprimand him for calling NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a liar. Simmons was not happy about the decision. Over the previous two days, he had acknowledged getting worked up during the podcast -- maybe too much. But he certainly did not think that what he said or how he said it was worthy of one of the harshest suspensions in ESPN history.
The conversation did not last long, and minutes afterwards ESPN PR e-mailed a three-sentence statement they were going to send out to reporters. "Every employee must be accountable to ESPN and those engaged in our editorial operations must also operate within ESPN's journalistic standards," it began. Simmons did not suggest any changes.
About an hour after Donoghue's phone call, ESPN VP/Communications Mike Soltys tweeted news of Simmons' suspension, ending two days of internal phone calls and hand wringing among senior ESPN execs as high up as President John Skipper. Skipper's inner circle making the decision included Executive VP/Administration Ed Durso, Senior VP/Corporate Communications Chris LaPlaca, Senior VP/HR Paul Richardson and Donoghue, Exec VP/Global Strategy & Original Content and Simmons' boss. That group quickly agreed that they had to reprimand Simmons because they felt that he crossed a line -- both journalistically and corporately. But they spent two days deciding what the punishment should be and how public to make it.
But what really rankled the execs was the belief that Simmons dared his bosses to reprimand him and threatened to "go public" with any message that came from corporate. ESPN execs felt they had to take a stand on what they viewed as public insubordination by one of their most visible stars. It was that challenge, even more than Simmons’ comments about Goodell, that forced ESPN's top execs to take action.
A similar scene played out in the NFL's Park Ave., office, 1½ miles away from ESPN's Manhattan office. Later Tuesday afternoon, senior NFL execs saw summaries of Simmons' podcast. Goodell did not hear the podcast or see any of the transcripts, league VP/Communications Brian McCarthy said. But sources said that several of Goodell's top lieutenants saw Simmons' comments and were irritated.
For the past several weeks of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson scandals, NFL insiders felt that it had been open season on the league and Goodell, with even its strongest league partners calling on the commissioner to resign and bashing his handling of the league’s domestic violence and child abuse scandals. League execs felt that ESPN, in particular, had been harsher with its coverage than others, with everyone from opinion-makers Keith Olbermann and Jason Whitlock to newsmen Bob Ley and Don Van Natta, offering tough critiques on the league and its teams. But some NFL execs felt Simmons' podcast comments were unnecessarily personal by calling Goodell a liar. Still, McCarthy said nobody from the league complained to ESPN about Simmons. An ESPN source also said that its executives did not hear from the NFL about the podcast.
In an environment where ESPN on-air talent like Olbermann and Tedy Bruschi, among others, were calling for Goodell's resignation, Simmons' comments stood out. For ESPN execs, it was not about Simmons' salty language -- his podcast is designed to be edgy. Rather, ESPN execs were irked because Simmons' comments on Goodell could not be supported by any known facts. ("Maybe Goodell is a liar," one source said. "The problem is that we don't know yet if Goodell is lying.") As the editor-in-chief of Grantland, Simmons is considered part of ESPN's management structure, which the members of Skipper's inner circle believed meant that he should be held to a higher standard. Plus, Simmons' role as the co-creator of the highly praised documentary series "30-for-30" also meant that he should have been more careful in using journalistic standards in all of his comments. Simmons pushed back on this point, sources said, saying that podcasts are more free flowing and have different standards than his columns or any of the “30-for-30” documentaries.
The group also had to navigate internal politics with how it dealt with Simmons, who is based in L.A. Many Bristol-based employees -- from top level execs to rank-and-file employees -- had grown weary of what they perceived to be a double standard with how management deals with Simmons. That includes everything from the freedom he has been given with Grantland to some of the things he has said and written about over the years, according to multiple sources inside ESPN. Skipper is known to be fond of Simmons and frequently seeks his counsel and advice. Ironically, Skipper has not talked to Simmons this week. Rather, it was Donoghue who communicated with him. With the podcast going viral, ESPN execs felt like they had to make a stand.
If there is a double standard, there is a reason for it. Since he joined ESPN in ‘01, Simmons has emerged as ESPN’s most popular columnist. He has a legion of online fans that follow his columns closely. Once Simmons’ suspension was announced, the hashtag #FreeSimmons started trending worldwide on Twitter, and most of the comments appeared to fully support the columnist.
Back in Connecticut and N.Y., the ESPN group continued to meet. They did not meet in person. Rather, the execs spent two days trading e-mails and talking by phone. It was a collaborative effort; ultimately Skipper made the final decision on a three-week suspension without pay -- a suspension the ESPN says is the second longest in its history. The only longer one came in early ‘12, when ESPN suspended “SportsCenter” anchor Max Bretos for using a racially sensitive term in relation to then-Knicks G Jeremy Lin. Simmons has been suspended twice before, both times with his ESPN bosses telling him to stay off Twitter. Simmons’ contract is up next year, and ESPN clearly wants to renew the deal. It is believed that Simmons wants to stay with the company, too. But it will be interesting to see whether this suspension derails those talks.