What Bill Simmons’ Departure Taught Us About ESPN

What Bill Simmons’ Departure Taught Us About ESPN

Bill Simmons

I’ve been a Bill Simmons fan since I really got into sports in 2005. I’ve always enjoyed his mailbag and his outspoken views, even if I didn’t always agree with him. I saw him, even then, as an important change of pace in regards to the so-called “objective” school of sportswriting, and latched onto his work; him being a rabid New England Patriots fan like myself also helped, I might add.

However, Simmons’ greatest accomplishment has been the sports and pop culture site Grantland. What’s funny about Grantland is that Simmons has taken a backseat in a lot of ways; his group of talented writers and editors really are what make the site worthwhile to visit for me. Simmons’ greatest accomplishment is the fact that he has shepherded all of this talent into a cohesive, smart, and entertaining website. Grantland may not be the most popular site on the internet, but it is one of the highest-quality. Simmons has a lot to do with that.

So when I heard on Friday that ESPN had essentially given Simmons the middle finger, I was very displeased. ESPN was once a cultural force that changed the way we look at sports. It hired talented people like Ralph Wiley and Stuart Scott and Simmons himself to be their voice, and it let them be that voice. They had editorial standards, sure, but they were by and large more concerned with the content than with pleasing their corporate sponsors.

But that wall, obviously, has come down.

Simmons was suspended back in September of 2014 for making comments critical of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. There was some speculation at the time (speculation that I believed) that Simmons was actually suspended for daring ESPN to suspend him for his comments. That I could at least understand; I could see why John Skipper, once Simmons’ most staunch ally, would be angry enough to take action against him. Perhaps all of this was just too much for the boys in Bristol to handle; Simmons was too much of a malcontent.

But ESPN fired Simmons, according to some reports, in a spur of the moment decision made exclusively by John Skipper on the basis of more critical comments made of the Goodell by Simmons on Dan Patrick’s radio show. Skipper fired him not because he felt that Simmons was baiting the company, or disrespecting the brand, or just generally being a jerk; he fired him because the NFL was a billion-dollar corporate client, and he didn’t want to upset them.

How embarrassing is this? How much more of a joke can ESPN become?

I’m not going to Gregg Easterbrook anyone; I’m sure as hell not here to moralize. But it’s pretty incredible that a journalistic organization would literally fire a person because a corporate sponsor was unhappy.

Wait, no it’s not. It’s not all. It’s actually depressingly common. You can Google for yourself the saga of writers trying to cover the Washington Professional Football Team, and you can Google the Buzzfeed fiasco that led to the deletion of articles and the leaving of staff that was critical to corporate partners.

The thing that always separated ESPN from the rest was that they had these independent sites like Grantland that would actually tell the truth and not be afraid to criticize the things that they thought deserved it. But it’s telling that, according to some reports, Skipper wanted Simmons to settle down and stop being such a ‘maverick’ and become more of a mentor. What that sounds like to me is that he wanted Simmons to stop writers from acting like he did, to stop the outspoken nature of his comments.

Simmons is not a perfect writer; he’s lost some of his bite as he’s gotten older and more comfortable in the literal millions of dollars that have come his way. He’s not the same force of nature that permanently changed the way we do sportswriting and who was a big influence on what would come to be known as blogger culture. But the fact of the matter is that ESPN wanted to make a scene; the network wanted to send a message to everyone else.

According to Deadspin, they didn’t even tell Simmons to his face that he got fired; he heard about it from Twitter, like the rest of us. You can think whatever you want about Simmons and his style and ESPN, but there is no denying that this was done to inflict maximum damage, and to destroy all sort of leverage Simmons would’ve had if he decided to look for a job after his contract ran out in September. They wanted to make sure that he took a hit as he walked out of the door. It’s pretty despicable.

But the beat rolls on. ESPN will continue to make billions, and they’ll find someone to head up Grantland, and because it’s a wonderful site filled with wonderful people, it’ll continue. Simmons’ll take some time and perhaps resurface at FoxSports and add to the list of talented voices like Jimmy Traina and Katie Nolan and Stewart Mandel. Hell, he might even start his own site, and truly go on his own.

But it’ll never obscure the fact that ESPN fired him because he did his job as a columnist, and it’ll never obscure the fact that ESPN is caring less and less about its content, and more and more about protecting the revenue stream. Sure, call me naive: but you can’t deny that something is very wrong when a supposed “news” organization prioritizes income over the integrity of its journalistic endeavor.

Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images the New Yorker

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