On a Wednesday night with the MLB regular season in its final week, a packed weekend of football ahead of us, and the NFL still in the midst of a domestic violence crisis, Bill Simmons was the top sports story in America. The hashtag #FreeSimmons was trending nationwide.
The 3 week ESPN suspension of The Sports Guy was a stunner for several reasons. Simmons challenged the powers that be on his podcast to discipline him after calling Roger Goodell a liar, but did anyone really expect ESPN to follow through on it? At least to this extent?
Simmons was suspended not just for his lack of proof in calling Roger Goodell a liar. If that was the standard here, Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless should have been suspended thousands of times over. It also wasn’t just because of the NFL squeezing ESPN – Keith Olbermann called for Goodell to resign a month ago and he hasn’t mysteriously disappeared. Rather, Simmons taunting his bosses publicly and daring them to take action seems to have done the trick.
Inside Bristol, Simmons’ panache put the network in an impossible situation – let his public challenge fall by the wayside and it’s proof of Simmons’ unique power and ability to play by his own rules. Suspend him and play right into his hands by stifling free speech and turning him into a martyr. Perhaps Simmons putting the network in that difficult position in the first place is why ESPN was so harsh in sending their star player to the sidelines for three weeks.
We’ve extensively chronicled ESPN’s disciplinary practices over the last year and how they are admittedly inconsistent. SimmonsGate (cue the angry commenters over sarcastic use of the -Gate suffix) is no different.
A three week suspension is an outlier in the lexicon of ESPN suspensions, most of which last for a week or less. Here’s a brief (and probably incomplete) rundown of recent discipline from the Bristol principal’s office. You’ll see that Simmons’ 3 week suspension falls at the decisively lengthy end. Compared to the recent suspensions of Max Kellerman, Dan Le Batard, and Stephen A. Smith just last month, it’s much tougher.
August 2014 – Dan Le Batard buys a billboard in Akron to troll LeBron James on behalf of Miami Heat fans.
March 2013 – Bill Simmons criticizes First Take on Twitter, is suspended from Twitter.
August 2014 – Max Kellerman admits to past domestic violence incident 20 years ago after ESPN instructed personnel to tread lightly on the topic.
Late 2006 – Sean Salisbury shares some, ummm, pictures of himself long before the word “selfie” entered our lexicon.
January 2008 – Dana Jacobson goes on a vodka-induced rampage at a Mike & Mike roast, takes the name of Lou Holtz in vain… or something.
December 2010 – Will Selva plagiarizes a newspaper report for a highlight. Although it was originally reported as indefinite, the suspension lasts a week.
November 2009 – Bill Simmons violates ESPN’s social media policy by feuding with Boston radio station WEEI, is given a 2 week Twitter suspension.
February 2010 – Tony Kornheiser comments on Hannah Storm’s fashion choices. Sadly, Storm has never returned the favor.
September 2014 – Simmons…. again.
February 2012 – SportsCenter anchor Max Bretos uses the phrase “chink in the armor” when discussing Jeremy Lin.
December 2012 – Rob Parker calls RGIII a “cornball brother” on First Take. Although the initial suspension was 30 days, Parker’s contract was not renewed and he never appeared on ESPN again.
1992 – A young Mike Tirico was reportedly suspended 3 months for instances of sexual harrassment. (UPDATE)
July 2011 – Bruce Feldman. #FreeBruce. Always and forever.
Fired/Asked to Leave
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Perhaps some of the #FreeSimmons movement is motivated by the evident harshness of the suspension. Yes, Simmons played with fire by being so cavalier in his attitude towards his bosses. He got precisely what he asked for in being disciplined.
However, when Simmons gets a suspension 3 times as long as Stephen A. Smith for his still-incomprehensible comments on domestic violence, it’s going to create a disconnect for ESPN consumers. Amongst this entire list of personalities, Max Bretos is really the only one on this list who had a longer suspension than the Sports Guy and came back on the air to continue in his role. (I suppose you could also count Whitlock, but it was several years between Bristol stints for him.)
For those reasons, the 3 week suspension is truly extraordinary. ESPN executives may have felt like they needed to be extra firm with Simmons given his bombastic history and the nature of his public challenge to them. They could be drawing a harder line policy after going soft on Smith this summer. Regardless of the reasons for Simmons’ benching though, ESPN once again encounters the problem that their public discipline still appears to be dished out inconsistently due to the sledgehammer coming down in this case.
Given Simmons’ influence at ESPN, the length of the enforced absence, and the potential for further fallout…. this episode may eventually turn out to be the most significant suspension from this list over time.