Bill Simmons Undercut ESPN's Great Roger Goodell Coverage, and President John Skipper is Pissed


Bill Simmons didn’t get suspended from ESPN for three weeks for his over-the-top criticism of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Keith Olbermann and others at the network have been doing that for weeks.

Bill Simmons didn’t get suspended for cursing on a podcast, although as avid listeners will note, he’s been increasingly angry for weeks, and he’s been letting the expletives fly with much more frequency.

Bill Simmons was suspended because he pointedly challenged ESPN, bloviating that he was bigger than the brand, which is a cardinal sin at the network. And ESPN President John Skipper is livid, I’m told.

For weeks now, media members have been skewering Goodell on TV and the Internet for his mishandling of the Ray Rice incident, and Simmons was late to the party. Sure, Simmons has been hammering Goodell for years (see here and here and here), but pretty much everyone has.

Right now, with everyone clamoring for Goodell’s ouster, not even fire and brimstone will get you noticed – but daring your bosses to call you and complain and saying “leave me alone” and then saying you’ll “go public,” that can get you some attention.

Here’s what Simmons said on his podcast three days ago:

I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. 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 … Please, call me and say I’m in trouble. I dare you.

It barely registered at the time on the web, because it felt like Simmons was simply looking to recapture the ESPN ‘bad boy’ mantle from his sworn enemy, Olbermann, and everyone focused on the “Goodell is a liar” comments. (Read up on the nasty Simmons/Olbermann backstory here and here.)

Clearly, Simmons didn’t fully think this stunt through, because the unintended consequences of his First Take-ish rant are that the network’s narrative on Ray Rice/Roger Goodell has completely changed.

In just a few days, ESPN went from leading the charge against Roger Goodell and the NFL on domestic violence – wiping away the stench from “League of Denial” – to, ‘wait, they suspended him for going after the commish? ESPN really is the NFL’s lapdog!’

Less than a week ago, ESPN celebrated what appeared to be a massive story – Outside the Lines skewered the Baltimore Ravens with powerful reporting. Initially, it looked like the Ravens front office might be toast. Baltimore’s owner, Steve Bisciotti, responded harshly 72 hours later, dinging the story, especially the clumsy text message reporting.

No matter.

ESPN considered the story a massive journalistic victory, and it was celebrated Tuesday by ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte in glowing fashion.

The network’s heavyweights — Keith Olbermann, Jason Whitlock and Bill Simmons, among others — delivered their own verbal punches; investigative reporter Don Van Natta Jr. has been driving the national media’s newsgathering; Bob Ley anchored smart and thoughtful discussions; and a roster of stars, including Jane McManus, Dan Le Batard, Hannah Storm, Andrew Brandt, Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen, offered information and insight.

But it was all undercut by the Simmons challenge. The old guard at ESPN, which has gone after Simmons for years (as documented here), made some points to the ESPN President that were irrefutable: This sets a horrible precedent. What happens if this sort of brazen challenge is issued by someone on First Take? Or PTI? We must do something.

Simmons has no bigger advocate at the network than Skipper. Through the Mike Wilbon NBA Countdown fiasco, Bill’s exit from Countdown this summer (the situation with Sage Steele), and some recent behind-the-scenes drama involving the struggles of Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight website, Skipper has stood by him. Many below Skipper would say he’s enabled Simmons; I feel that’s much too harsh given his accomplishments.

But you can see why Skipper is so peeved he got a middle finger from Simmons on a podcast. ABC loved the synergy when we put his guy, Cousin Sal, on Sportscenter to make NFL picks and he’s gonna do me like this? is how someone close to Skipper described the situation.

Et tu, Simmons?

Simmons solidified his ESPN rebel status with this stunt – #FreeSimmons! – and there’s a fantastic quote from this unrelated 2007 story that applies to his impressive career at ESPN: Chemistry of opposition makes terrific drama.

Nothing like being in a contract year, surrounded by success – he just won an Emmy – and drama, right?