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Circling the Wagons

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ESPN’s attempt to defend the Simmons suspension probably speaks for itself, but let’s try to disassemble the multiple layers of illogic anyway. The insults to the intelligence start right at the beginning:

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.”

It’s hard to even know where to begin with this:

  • Simmons had no basis for believing that Goodell is not being truthful about what he knew? Really?  Despite the public video of Rice dragging his unconscious fiancee out of the elevator like a sack of potatoes, despite the fact that this happened in a casino and hence on videotape,  and most importantly despite the fact that the NFL’s stenographers reported, when it was favorable to the NFL, that NFL management had seen the internal elevator video?  It’s theoretically possible, though highly implausible, that the league office was lying then rather than lying now, but to assert that Simmons’s charge has no justification beyond idle speculation is false.  There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence and Simmons’s assumption is at the very least plausible.
  • Note that Lipsyte is requiring evidence that goes beyond what would actually be necessary to prove Simmons’s charges.  He didn’t say that Goodell had seen the tape; he said Goodell knew “what was on that tape.”  There are plenty of ways Goodell could have known that without having personally seen the tape, including Ray Rice telling the truth during the hearing.
  • The idea that a sports podcast demands standards of evidence that would hold up before an independent tribunal before a host has a “license” to make claims is utterly risible.  What percentage of the claims made on Pardon the Interruption or The Skip Bayless Trolls America Hour would hold up to this made-up-in-bad-faith standard?  Obviously, Lipsyte’s consideration here must be limited to the present circumstances, or ESPN will be reduced to showing raw footage 24 hours a day.

Things don’t improve from here:

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 mean, you can make a case; it won’t stand up to any scrutiny, but you can make it. One obvious problem is that suspending Simmons has given his remarks far more traction that had they just remained in the B.S. Report archives, which is kind of a problem. I think Lipsyte does not have the “license” to engage in such implausible speculation without a smoking-gun evidence that what Bill Simmons said on a podcast undermined ESPN’s other reporting (how? And to which audience?)

After some general criticism of Simmons, dismissing the person who (whatever his faults as a writer) presides over ESPN’s two highest-quality journalistic products as “by no stretch a leading journalist,” we get this:

“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.

First of all, Lipsyte has once again violated his own standards by making assertions he has no “license” to make because of the lack of evidence. Just this week an obscure publication called the New York Times published a piece disproving the Gary Hart urban legend Lipsyte lazily recycles here. (“In truth, though, Hart never issued any challenge to The Miami Herald’s reporters, or to anybody else, really.”) Leaving that aside, this argument hasn’t become any less purely self-refuting. “Simmons suggested that his bosses were so in the tank for NFL management they’d sanction him for criticizing Roger Goodell. They decided to prove him right!” How this constitutes a defense of ESPN’s management is…unclear.

Finally, let me expand a bit on the point I made the day the suspension came down. Again, does anybody think that if Simmons was engaged in speculation that a player was lying about having used PEDs — even in the absence of a positive drug test — he would be suspended? We know the answer, because he has, and nothing happened. And while I strongly disagree with Simmons on the issue it would be ridiculous to say that he didn’t have the “license” to suggest that PED use is more widespread than tests reveal. For that matter, if you think Goodell is telling the truth than Ray Rice must have been lying — but apparently it’s OK to think that. It’s clear that this ad hoc standard is also a double standard — that the “license” ESPN personalities have to criticize players is much broader than the “license” they have to criticize management. Lipsyte’s feeble defense of management’s suspension of Simmons — the same length, it should be noted, as the initial Ray Rice suspension and the suspension Stephen A. Smith got for blaming the victim of Ray Rice’s assault combined — squares the circle.

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