Would a political reporter be suspended by his news organization for calling the President a liar? It's practically in the job description. Bill Simmons, of Grantland and other ESPN enterprises, called Roger Goodell, the N.F.L. commissioner, a liar in a podcast and challenged his bosses to tell him he couldn't say so. For that, Simmons has been suspended for three weeks. Goodell, in a press conference last week, said that when he suspended Ray Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, for two games for knocking his fiancée (now wife) unconscious, he had a very different impression of what Rice had done than was shown in a video of Rice knocking his fiancée unconscious. Goodell said that he had no access to that video, which Rice's lawyers had (and TMZ eventually got, too), and that no one in his office knew what it looked like. This is what Simmons had to say about that:
Goodell, if he didn't know what was on that tape, he's a liar. I'm just saying it. He is lying. If you put him up on a lie detector test, that guy would fail. For all these people to pretend they didn't know is such [expletive] [expletive]. It really is, it's such [expletive] [expletive]. For him to go into that press conference and pretend otherwise — I was so insulted.
ESPN said in a statement, "Every employee must be accountable to ESPN and those engaged in our editorial operations must also operate within ESPN's journalistic standards…. Bill Simmons did not meet those obligations in a recent podcast."
Simmons's anger is absolutely earned. Goodell's denial is absurd; as I've written before, what did he think it looked like when a football player knocked a woman unconscious? (Note that Simmons is saying that he lied about knowing what was on the tape, not whether Goodell saw it himself.) There are a few levels of dishonesty here: when Goodell hears that a player—a man whom he watches on the field every week using the force of his body in violent collisions—has hit a woman, and says that he just can't picture the mechanics of that action without a video, how many lies is he telling, to others and to himself? Perhaps in other cases, when players choked women, shot them, or dragged them by the hair, he needed a sort of animated diagram.
And what do Simmons's bosses at ESPN think journalism looks like? Its hits are supposed to be hard. ESPN's own reporting has challenged the Ravens' claims that their team management didn't know what was on the video, and the league's account of what it knew. One of the best moments of sports broadcasting in the past few weeks was Cris Carter, also of ESPN, talking about the Adrian Peterson case and the wrongness of beating a child. "I thought last week was Cris' finest hour," an ESPN executive told Sport Illustrated, and it was. In the course of it, Carter said, of taking Peterson off the field, "Because, you know what, as a man, that's the only thing we really respect. We don't respect no women; we don't respect no kids. The only thing Roger and them do—take him off the field, because they respect that." 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.
"I don't like liars. I think just people who, when you know they're lying and they're lying anyway. Those are the worst people," Simmons said in his podcast. He was talking, still, about Goodell, who he said had "no integrity." He also dared his managers to discipline him, to show who they were: "I really hope somebody calls me or e-mails 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. Thank you." Maybe Simmons was deliberately looking for ESPN's limits; if so, he found them. What does it mean, anyway, for a journalist to be suspended? Simmons presumably won't be able to write his columns, appear on television, or record his podcasts. But he still might be asking questions.