It’s no secret that ESPN’s internal discipline has often been inconsistent; they even admit that, with vice-president Patrick Steigman (Bristol’s director of digital and print media) telling ombudsman Robert Lipsyte in September, “We don’t treat everyone the same but we treat everyone fairly.” Still, this week has set up a double standard that seems farfetched even by the Worldwide Leader’s typical approach. That’s thanks to Skip Bayless’ comments Monday on First Take that the 2003 sexual assault charges against Kobe Bryant gave him “edge” and “sizzle” and helped him sell shoes.
As of Tuesday night, ESPN hadn’t taken any action against Bayless, something that stands in sharp contrast to their recent three-week suspension of Bill Simmons for his criticisms of Roger Goodell. Simmons just returned to the network and is being diplomatic so far, so don’t expect him to risk another suspension by waging war on First Take again or even comparing the situations.
However, from the outside, there are plenty of similarities here, with Bayless’ comments being far more problematic and having even less proof attached to them. If ESPN doesn’t take action against him, it suggests at most a massive double standard in how they treat two of their most notable personalities. At the very least it suggests the network’s comments on why they punished Simmons didn’t tell the whole story. Consider the statement they sent out when they suspended The Sports Guy:
“Every employee must be accountable to ESPN and those engaged in our editorial operations must also operate within ESPN’s journalistic standards. We have worked hard to ensure that our recent NFL coverage has met that criteria. Bill Simmons did not meet those obligations in a recent podcast, and as a result we have suspended him for three weeks.”
Yes, Simmons also dared ESPN to suspend him, and ESPN president John Skipper told Lipsyte that was a factor in the suspension. However, Lipsyte writes that Skipper said Simmons’ suspension was primarily due to his claim that Goodell was a liar, something he didn’t provide evidence for:
The more important reason for the suspension, Skipper said, had to do with fairness and the difference between commentary and reporting. Both have been on exemplary display of late, as ESPN did its journalism proud covering Rice and Goodell — including a terrific story arc by Don Van Natta Jr. that chronicled the league’s and the Baltimore Ravens’ myriad missteps that led to Rice’s suspension. Skipper said Simmons had to advance the story, bring some evidence, before he could make flat-out charges against anyone.
It’s clear that Bayless didn’t bring any evidence that Bryant’s sexual assault charges helped him sell extra sneakers. In fact, this point has been in Bayless’ mind for some time, as demonstrated by this 2003 piece he wrote while the civil case against Bryant was playing out:
Then Eagle happened. Soon, Kobe began playing the “bad boy” role by getting his first visible tattoos.
Now, “edge” might be all he has left as a pitch man.
Be careful what you wish for.
Now that the rape case has been dismissed, you could argue that Kobe has at least added enough controversial aura to sell the products that anti-hero-worshipping kids buy — sneakers, especially.
However, that idea was even dismissed by an expert Bayless went on to quote:
Yet Bob Williams, CEO of Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing, argues otherwise.
“Kobe Bryant is not from the street,” Williams said Friday, “and people on the street know that. He hasn’t ever appealed to that group. Just being controversial in and of itself isn’t enough to give him a significant increase in being able to sell shoes.”
Eagle cost Kobe his endorsement deals with McDonald’s and Nutella. He remains under contract to Nike and to Coca-Cola as a Sprite spokesman (though 2005), but it’s unclear if or when those companies will use him again in their ads.
Williams believes Kobe’s marketing image still hinges on his ability to win the civil case. Of speculation that it will be settled before it reaches court, Williams said: “That would be some admission of guilt. I think he needs to go forward and prove his innocence, or some people will always think he was guilty.”
Saying the sexual assault charges against Bryant helped his marketability isn’t a defensible inference from the reporting out there (as Simmons’ claims Goodell was a liar were; keep in mind those came amidst revelations from ESPN’s own reporters that contradicted Goodell’s statements), and it’s not an unverifiable statement that can only be opinion. It’s a claim that’s completely counterfactual; there’s evidence that case hurt Bryant’s endorsement deals for years and years. So, by the standard ESPN applied to Simmons, this looks worthy of punishment.
That standard isn’t universally applied though, and First Take talent in particular appears to enjoy more latitude than The Sports Guy. Simmons’ suspension was one of the harshest in ESPN history, and Bayless and Stephen A. Smith have gotten away with a lot. Remember Bayless lying about his high school basketball career?
First Take has long been a place for provocative arguments not backed by the facts, and ESPN seems just fine with that, as June comments to Richard Deitsch from network vice-president Marcia Keegan show. We’ll see if ESPN does anything about Bayless here, but if they don’t, it will continue to send the message that this kind of counterfactual commentary is just fine — as long as you do it on First Take.
* AA reached out to ESPN for a statement on the Bayless comments on Tuesday afternoon. If and when an ESPN statement arrives, we’ll share it with you.