Yesterday the news broke that Bill Simmons was suspended from Twitter by ESPN for a few days after his public criticism of First Take.
The immediate reaction volleyed back and forth and around in circles between several interpretations of the importance of the news…
–Simmons got what was coming to him for criticizing a colleague.
–Nobody is bigger than ESPN, even Simmons.
–ESPN was suppressing free speech to protect Skip Bayless.
–Embrace Debate is a red herring.
–3 days away from Twitter is probably a good thing.
–Who gives a sh*t?
Let's be real – telling someone not to tweet for three days shouldn't even count as any kind of real punishment. ESPN might as well have told Bill Simmons he couldn't have his ice cream unless he also ate his fruits and veggies. It's not even a slap on the wrist. It's a firm pat on the shoulder with a stern paternal glare. There's no real consequence, ESPN just had to give him a brief, enforced vacation from Twitter for breaking one of their rules and hoped it was short enough that nobody would blab or notice.
Unfortunately for Bristol, someone did blab to Deadspin's John Koblin and "ESPN SUSPENDS BILL SIMMONS" headlines were rampant. While #FreeSimmons didn't quite turn into #FreeBruce, the episode is not a good look for ESPN no matter how you spin it. It gives the impression that there's no room to speak freely about concerns over the network's downward spiral and exposes the "Embrace Debate" concept as the fraud it is. After all, how can ESPN gleefully promote Richard Sherman calling Skip Bayless every name in the book but run the opposite direction when Bill Simmons offers tepid criticism of the same premise? It creates a cognitive dissonance in the minds of ESPN's viewers and followers that is all too common these days. Criticism of Skip Bayless is apparently only a good thing when it increases ratings and feeds into the carnival sideshow that is further cementing its status as the worst show produced by ESPN in its 30+ year history with each passing day.
But with all that said, we missed the forest for the trees with the real importance of Bill Simmons' Twitter suspension.
The central issue for ESPN isn't their biggest star and "spiritual leader" talking out of turn and aiming a couple critical tweets at Skip Bayless. It's the fact that ESPN's spiritual leader was so offended by the atrocity that is First Take that he had to speak out publicly. The Sherman-Bayless debacle was so unseemly, such a black mark on ESPN's brand, that Bill Simmons had to say something to send a message, probably knowing he'd be asked to stay off Twitter for a few days before he sent those tweets.
Bill Simmons taking a few days off Twitter does nothing to address the real problem at ESPN – the slow and steady decline of ESPN's reputation. "Embrace Debate" is no longer confined to First Take, it's infected ESPN's other studio shows like a noxious gas with no end in sight.
Suspending Simmons for violating ESPN's social media policy is like trying to save a sinking boat by throwing water overboard with dixie cups. ESPN is doing nothing to plug the hole and address the real problem. The hole is First Take. And it's a sinkhole that is rapidly swallowing ESPN's credibility.
The criticism of First Take isn't about being a "hater," it's about wanting and demanding for ESPN to be better than our lowest common denominator. It's about expecting more from a company that likes to call themselves the worldwide leader in sports than diving into the gutter with awful content that makes Maury look refined and sophisticated. That was the message Bill Simmons needed to send to everyone in Bristol and beyond.
In December, ESPN President John Skipper said he wasn't concerned with the tidal waves of criticism affecting ESPN's brand in an interview with SBJ:
“The brand’s never been stronger. We care most about our brand with fans. We have no choice but to worry about our brand with our friends in the media and with advertisers and with business people. … If you do the old concentric circle thing, of course the stuff that happens inside the figurative Beltway, happens first then it moves outward. We never want to wait until it gets to the edge. It hasn’t gotten to the edge. Am I concerned it’s getting there? No. But am I concerned enough to try and react and do things differently? Yes.”
Thanks to the embarrassing Sherman-Bayless debacle and Bill Simmons' Twitter drama, the damage done to ESPN's brand is closer to the edge than ever before.