Earlier this week, ESPN suspended Grantland founder Bill Simmons for three weeks for his statements regarding NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the NFL’s current domestic violence-fueled PR nightmare, and about whether or not league executives had seen the now-infamous video of former Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice brutally beating his then-fiancée Janay Palmer.
“I just think not enough is being made out of the fact that they knew about the tape, and they knew what was on it,” Simmons said about the NFL’s botched response. “Goodell, if he didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar. 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 all these people to pretend they didn’t know is such fucking bullshit. It really is — it’s such fucking bullshit. And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted.”
In response, ESPN issued a statement explaining that Simmons has been suspended for three weeks.
“Every employee must be accountable to ESPN and those engaged in our editorial operations must also operate within ESPN’s journalistic standards,” reads the statement. “We have worked hard to ensure that our recent NFL coverage has met that criteria. Bill Simmons did not meet those obligations in a recent podcast, and as a result we have suspended him for three weeks.”
For comparison, ESPN leveled just a one-week suspension against commentator Stephen A. Smith for insinuating that Palmer “provoke[d] wrong actions,” during ESPN’s First Take.
“What I’ve tried to employ the female members of my family — some of who you all met and talked to and what have you — is that … let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions, because if I come — or somebody else come, whether it’s law enforcement officials, your brother or the fellas that you know — if we come after somebody has put their hands on you, it doesn’t negate the fact that they already put their hands on you.”
Smith’s comments were met with significant outrage both inside and out of the ESPN organization. In a series of tweets, SportsNation co-host Michelle Beadle took Smith to task, writing, “So I was just forced to watch this morning’s First Take. A.) I’ll never feel clean again. B.) I’m now aware that I can provoke my own beating. I’m thinking about wearing a miniskirt this weekend… I’d hate to think what I’d be asking for by doing so. Violence isn’t the victim’s issue. It’s the abuser’s. To insinuate otherwise is irresponsible and disgusting. Walk. Away.”
None of this is to say what Simmons did was professional in nature. The “worldwide leader in sports” probably doesn’t want to be too closely associated with the phrase “fucking bullshit.” That’s fair. Even so, was that really three times worse than Smith’s assertion that there are circumstances in which victims are responsible for the crimes committed against them? I’d say no.
Even within the realm of Simmons’ many career slip-ups, this seems like the most minor, and yet it’s being punished the most severely.
In January, Grantland published a piece titled “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” by writer Caleb Hannan. The story, which centered around inventor Essay Anne Vanderbilt, was slated to be a long-read feature about the development and science behind her odd-looking Oracle GX1 putter. Now, I’m not certain that it’s possible to write a several-thousand word piece about a piece of sporting equipment, but that was Hannan’s task to tackle.
During the course of Hannan’s reporting, he discovered that Vanderbilt was transgender. The piece took a turn, and instead of focusing on the putter — as it was supposed to be — Hannan began crafting a story about Vanderbilt’s background. It seems that Vanderbilt — who by all accounts was a very private person — feared that Hannan was planning to out her. She took her life prior to the article’s publishing.
On January 20th, Simmons, Grantland’s editor-in-chief, posted what seemed to be a sort of apology for the entire ordeal.
Simmons outlined the process behind the piece, discussing Hannan’s first draft, submitted in September of last year.
“The story had no ending because Dr. V wouldn’t talk to him anymore,” Simmons wrote. “We never seriously considered running his piece, at least in that form.” He adds that he and the rest of the editorial team pushed Hannan “to keep reporting this one.”
The following month, Vanderbilt committed suicide.
To many, especially transgender individuals, it seemed obvious that Vanderbilt’s death was at least partially the result of Hannan’s aggressive reporting (mind you, this wasn’t a political, investigative piece; it was a human interest feature about a putter) and the fact that he outed Vanderbilt to one of her investors. After her death, Simmons and Grantland decided to move forward with publishing a piece that focused largely on Vanderbilt’s status as a transgender individual. Her former name, personal details, and other pieces of information she had no intention of becoming publicly available, were put out for all to see.
Even in Simmons’ “apology” — I use the term loosely, as he defended the outlet’s actions and apologized “if someone was offended” — he placed blame on the victim, stating that Vanderbilt was a “public figure,” a term that has all but lost its meaning in the age of Twitter, Facebook, and digital journalism.
“To our dismay, a few outlets pushed some version of the ‘Grantland writer bullies someone into committing suicide!’ narrative, either because they wanted to sensationalize the story, or they simply didn’t read the piece carefully,” Simmons wrote. “It’s a false conclusion that doubles as being recklessly unfair. Caleb reported a story about a public figure that slowly spun out of control. He never antagonized or badgered anyone. Any mistakes happened because of his inexperience, and ours, too.”
In the end, neither Simmons nor anyone else at Grantland received a suspension of any kind; not even Caleb Hannan, who now pops up from time to time over at Politico.
If there was a time for ESPN to take action against Simmons, it was then. They didn’t. That’s just how things sometimes go. That they took action against him now, for something entirely unrelated, tells us a number of things about ESPN as an organization.
For one, they value their relationship with the NFL more than they value women’s safety. If this wasn’t the case, then why was Simmons suspended for pointing out the increasingly obvious reality that league officials were well aware of what was on the tape when they initially decided to suspend Rice for just two weeks? Why was Simmons suspended three times as long as Stephen A. Smith, who actually doubled down on the statements he made about women “provoking” their own attacks?
Secondly, the statement, “Those engaged in our editorial operations must also operate within ESPN’s journalistic standards,” and their subsequent action, makes it clear that an individual operating outside these standards will receive some sort of punishment. If this is the case, the implication is that the horrific journalistic practices that led to the death of Essay Anne Vanderbilt did, in fact, fall within these standards. Caleb Hannan was never officially suspended. Simmons and the rest of the editorial staff — that by Simmons’ own admission urged Hannan to keep reporting — was not suspended. What did ESPN do to address that issue? Did they hire a more diverse staff? A glance at the Grantland masthead shows that this hasn’t been the case. There’s no actual indication that ESPN viewed those events as being out of line with their own journalistic standards.
Should Simmons have left the phrase “fucking bullshit” — which was bleeped in the now-pulled podcast — out of his comments? Probably. Should ESPN have leveled this kind of punishment against him? Absolutely not, and in doing so, they’re creating a PR nightmare of their own.