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What Bill Simmons Showed About ESPN - The New Yorker

What Bill Simmons Showed About ESPN The New Yorker


Sports journalists have every right to be angry if the N.F.L. thinks that it can treat the issue of domestic violence with blithe disregard—or if their own colleagues do. Before the Simmons suspension, ESPN’s ombudsman had praised the organization for standing up to the N.F.L. (In the same post, he called ESPN’s withdrawal, last year, of its imprimatur from “League of Denial,” a PBS documentary on concussions, “its darkest” hour.) Another ESPN commentator, Stephen A. Smith, said earlier in the Ray Rice story that women should be reminded not to provoke the men in their lives. That was an insult to viewers, and to women who hear the same thing from men who abuse them. Smith was suspended for a week, a third as long as Simmons, whose insult was to a man who earns forty-four million dollars a year for keeping the owners of thirty-two teams happy. At some point, ESPN’s commentators should also get to call one of the more powerful men in their industry a liar.

ESPN has a financial relationship with the N.F.L.—Monday Night Football, to start with, for which it pays $1.9 billion a year in a contract, worth $15.2 billion in all, that runs through 2021—but it also, one would think, has an interest in its own journalistic identity. That, ultimately, has to be a more essential asset than the integrity of its game-broadcasting contracts; it’s what it has to barter. Without some assurance that they are getting fair, critical coverage, viewers might as well be watching the N.F.L. Network, or nothing at all. ESPN makes football seem real. And yet ESPN can be acutely sensitive about its own language. In Simmons’s case, that does not mean obscenity; that was bleeped out in the podcast, which was not live and, anyway, is called the “B.S. Report.” (Grantland itself has certain exemptions from ESPN’s obscenity rules.) But the constructed language one hears repeated in reports on, say, college players and sexual assault reflects an institutional nervousness; the day Florida authorities announced that Jameis Winston, the Seminoles quarterback, wouldn’t be charged with rape, the network sent out a memo, obtained by Deadspin, to all “talent,” advising them to “use discretion” and get “guidance on appropriate terms and language.” There are also rules, or guidelines, about not saying bad words about one’s ESPN colleagues or managers. Simmons has twice earned more limited suspensions for violating those. But the N.F.L., as one hopes ESPN remembers, is not Simmons’s boss.

In every field of journalism, there are questions of access and the threat that, even if one is in the right, sources will dry up, interviews will be cancelled. (Jane Mayer wrote about a moment like that for her, as a young reporter at the White House.) The only way for that not to destroy journalism as an enterprise is for reporters to have, at those moments, true institutional support. ESPN has done the opposite, doing the work of the angry, powerful people whom it covers for them.

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So it wasn't saying bad words; it was saying bad words ABOUT A PARTNER?

I'm still digesting this.

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