…tells the right time twice a day. Though to be honest, this one was a little too easy to see coming.
Last week, I wrote this regarding Ray Rice, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and ESPN’s coverage of each:
The common image of sports journalism is that it is a force somewhat in opposition to professional sports leagues, and indeed sports journalists themselves love to foster this image. The image however, is a false one. True, sports journalists do often criticize players, coaches, teams and even leagues. But all of this is done with a fairly barker-esque quality. Villains sell tickets just as well as heroes, and sports journalism’s primary job is to create a mythic feel to their subjects in a way that gets you excited about watching. Grantland’s founder Bill Simmons might generate a lot of pixels of snark making fun of various facets of the NFL, NBA and MLBA, but he does so in a way designed to get you very pumped about the next televised product coming down the chute.
While covering the Ray Rice spousal abuse scandal, ESPN anchor Hannah Storm asked this week, “What exactly does the NFL stand for?” Were you to go back and listen to ESPN television and radio broadcasts over the past twenty years, you might think the answer to her question was Competition, Diversity, the Human Spirit, Excellence, and Patriotism. In fact, however, the NFL stands for the same thing ESPN does: Making lots of money. It’s just as much in ESPN’s interest — or Hannah Storm’s — that you be a rabid NFL fan as it is in the NFL’s. Which is why in a few weeks when this story is yesterday’s news, Hannah will be back leading the cheers for professional football as if Ray Ray’s wife had never been knocked out in an elevator on video and the commissioner had not lied about it to keep him on the field as a ratings draw.
I highlighted that line about Bill Simmons in the cut-and-paste here because it turns out to have been used somewhat ironically in retrospect.
This week Simmons was suspended for three weeks by ESPN, who owns Simmons’ site Grantland. According to all involved, Simmons’ suspension stems from having committed two unforgivable sins: He called Godell a liar, and he said he didn’t care if he got punished by ESPN for doing so. According to ESPN’s ombudsman, by doing this Simmons “undermined ESPN’s solid journalistic efforts” when he made the comment because Goodell “is not a certifiable liar.”
If you haven’t been following the Ray Rice story — or if you have limited yourself to the more sensational wife beating and not the corporate PR nightmare aftermath — you will be surprised to learn that the main source of Simmons’ opinion is in fact ESPN, who wrote this marvelous and damning piece of journalism on September 19. ESPN noted in that story that they “found a pattern of misinformation and misdirection employed by the Ravens and the NFL since that February night [when the Rice story first broke].” Examples of misdirection by Goodell include telling reporters that no one in his office had seen the video tape of Rice hitting his wife, and then later someone having leaked a phone message from his office to the press that said otherwise. Or, if you prefer, Goodell’s insistence that he had tried to get a copy od the tape from law enforcement officials but that they had refused, and — surprise! — ESPN’s interviews and inspection of records showing that no such request had in fact been made.
Now, some might rightly note that none of these things definitively proved Goodell is a liar. For example, he might have told his staff at the outset of the scandal, “From now on I want you to do everything you can to bury this story, but — and this is important — I want you to tell me the opposite of what you actually do, so that if I talk to the press I can say ‘no we aren’t doing that’ and not lie.” (Which, as goofy as it sounds when you see it written out, is pretty much what every national politician you can name off the top of your head has in place for their standing operation procedure.) So yes, it is possible that Goodell might be a cynical, misleading manipulator pulling strings to willfully mislead the press and the public and still have positioned himself to be able to truthfully say “I am not a liar” in a very technical sense. Your mileage for what that says about Goodell’s standing as a either truth-teller or moral human being may vary, obviously.
But the question still remains: is ESPN and ombudsman Robert Lipsyte being honest about why Simmons has been suspended? Is it really the case that EPSN’s journalistic integrity is a thing meant to hold up to that level of exact, hair-splitting detail?
For me, a regular reader of Simmons, this is all a little hard swallow. After all, Simmons is the guy ESPN hired to write stuff such as which NBA player is like which of the Real Wives of Beverly Hills. He regularly writes things far more derogatory about other sports executives, such as Isaiah Thomas. He pens theories about male celebrities’ possible mental illness (without either having expertise or interviewing someone who does), and regularly evaluates female celebrities on their appearance. Simmons is a lot of things, but pure journalist ain’t one of them — nor is it credible to believe that ESPN was ever under the illusion that he might be.
And it’s not as if Simmons is alone. As I noted in my previous Rice-Goodell-NFL post, ESPN regularly reported that Ray Lewis was cured/converted/changed/wonderful man after he rolled over on his friends to get out of a murder rap, despite the fact that I have never found any evidence that they ever did anything to corroborate that PR line. I like ESPN’s Sports Center, talk shows and radio show’s, but I’d wager you couldn’t watch any of them (except perhaps maybe Sports Center) for more than 30 minutes on any day without hearing a non-corroborated opinion proffered as fact by someone on their payroll. Hell, ESPN’s ombudsman went out of his way to talk about Simmons “thin-skin” in the very post in which he was explaining that ESPN didn’t have truck with people making negative comments that didn’t stand up to the scrutiny of the 100% objectivity test.
And so the question remains, why did ESPN feel compelled to suspend a columnist-broadcaster for basically doing what they pay all of their talent to do all day every day, especially when that columnist-boradcast based his comments on ESPN’s own story? And more than simply suspend him, but suspend him for longer than Ray Rice was initially suspended for hitting his wife and longer than ESPN suspended either Stephen A. Smith for saying that women shouldn’t provoke men into domestic violence or Max Kellerman for talking about hitting his own girlfriend?
The answer, as it ever is in the world of business, is money.
ESPN is not just an organization that covers the NFL — the sports network has a $15 billion dollar partnership with the league through 2021. Covering the Ray Rice story initially, for a brief period of time, is a win-win for everybody whose name is not Ray Rice. ESPN’s rating and page clicks go up without hurting the NFL’s. But if you don’t stop after a week or so, the Ray Rice story ceases to become the 24-Hour Sensation Du Jour, and quickly becomes an indictment of the Ravens, Goodell, the entire League, and the sports “journalists” who get paid to turn everyone into mythic characters.
Business-wise, that’s the very definition of a lose-lose. And ESPN isn’t out to lose money in order to be good sports journalists — they’re out to be poor sports journalists in the interest of making money. That’s why ESPN’s ombudsman can address the hiring of Ray Lewis as an ESPN commentator by noting that “perhaps more important than dredging up Lewis’ past is examining the use of his legacy and future.” It’s why that same ombudsman can report with a straight face that ESPN’s plan to launch a satellite site helmed by someone who’s most known for making racist and homophobic comments and referring to his peers as “mean spirited insecure” “clowns” using “fake ghetto accents” as one that is “highly anticipated” while still saying that the ESPN has no place for the likes of someone who would call Roger Goodell a liar.
It’s a long shot, I know, but I very much hope the real non-sports journalists of the world widen their focus and decide to begin to cover not only Roger Goodell, but also the supposed journalists who are currently being paid to do so.
 But hey, it’s racist comments about Asians — who are hardly covered at all by ESPN — so it’s all good.