This much is apparent because, had this been the actual justification for the Worldwide Leader’s three-week ban of the Sports Guy, ESPN would be looking at a pretty thin roster of commentators after the Ray Rice scandal and Adrian Peterson story broke.
Chris Mortensen has insisted his sources led him astray when it came to what the NFL knew and when regarding Ray Rice’s domestic violence case. Adam Schefter has gone scorched earth on the league’s executives. Tedy Bruschi has openly questioned Goodell’s authenticity and called for his resignation, as has Jason Whitlock. An “Outside the Lines” report from last Friday indicated an even more substantial cover-up of the Rice story by both Goodell and the Baltimore Ravens front office. The line of people ready to take a crack at the Ginger Piñata grows by the day.
All Simmons did was come to the same conclusion many in media and the public have – Goodell . But that’s not why he’s on ESPN’s version of the Island of Despair. He’s there because of Keith Olbermann.
No, not today’s Keith Olbermann, the one who’s been lighting up Roger Goodell like a Christmas tree for the better part of the last two months, calling for his resignation even before the second Ray Rice video became public. We’re talking about Keith Olbermann circa 1995, the former co-host of the evening edition of SportsCenter with Dan Patrick, aka The Big Show, the quick-witted, verbose egomaniac who knew exactly how much better he was at his job than just about anyone else.
As was made clear in the book Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, John Walsh and the ESPN brass wanted nothing less than Olbermann, Patrick or anyone else becoming bigger than the network itself. No calling your edition of SportsCenter “The Big Show.” No becoming your own brand. And certainly, no showing up your bosses.
Olbermann got away with it because of his immense talent. After his departure, nobody had that sort of pull at ESPN in the form of television or radio, not even when they snapped up Hunter S. Thompson for their “alternative” online sportswriting section, Page 2.
Among the talent ESPN acquired for Page 2, though, was Simmons. Then known as the Boston Sports Guy, Simmons had already cultivated a small following on his personal site, www.bostonsportsguy.com (a site that is still active under a new URL and was used by Simmons as recently as 2009 to promote his new book during his first suspension from ESPN, in case anyone is wondering where Simmons may intend to “go public” with his airing of grievances as he threatened on his podcast).
As Simmons has risen from smart-alec homer columnist to the true King of All (Sports) Media (read it and weep, Stern), the frequency of his clashes with ESPN management has also increased. This week’s suspension was Simmons’ third in the past five years, having already been slapped on the wrist in 2009 for ripping WEEI, an ESPN-affiliated Boston-area radio station who’d mocked Simmons for weeks prior, and again in 2013 after calling an ESPN First Take segment featuring a heated exchange between Skip Bayless and Richard Sherman “embarrassing.”
But this time was different. While Simmons has thrown his weight around in the past, he’d never openly challenged, nay “dared,” his employer take him off the grid, particularly considering his opinion on the Goodell matter, while profrane, was actually quite tame. Even if there was no implication of Goodell’s dishonesty in the past few weeks of reporting, though, ESPN never suspended Simmons for suggesting Adrian Peterson may have been using PEDs to recover from a torn ACL without a shred of evidence (which he did).
ESPN’s point is simple: Simmons may be our key player, but he’s less important to us than we are to him. Grantland’s a major success? We’ll give Nate Silver and Jason Whitlock their own personality-driven websites as well. Did you see what we did to Max Kellerman just for talking about his own domestic violence case on the air? We won’t even fire Gene Wojasdfoijadmsiopasadfjwer and we’ll still kick Rick Reilly’s self-righteous, self-plagarizing ass to the curb. We cycle out our token loudmouths on TV like Brita filters. You seriously think anyone can tell the difference between Fran Fraschilla and Tom Penn? Because we sure can’t, and if either of them starts giving us grief, we’ll have someone else waiting on deck to take over faster than you can say, “You’re with me, leather.”
Of course, there’s a reason Simmons has the following he does. There’s a reason every other cog at the Mothership is interchangeable, yet no one has found one that could replace him. There’s a reason Grantland, and the 30 for 30 series Simmons helmed have been rousing successes, while Silver’s revamped FiveThirtyEight has been fair to middling and Whitlock’s site hasn’t even gotten off the ground yet.
His unparalleled longevity at ESPN is a reflection of his talent and his mass appeal, amplified by ESPN’s marketing machine. He’s not the most talented, funny, poignant or even controversial writer any longer, but his cult of personality has a gravity not seen since Olbermann. If anyone can get away with a petulant, but ultimately harmless, outburst, it’s Simmons.
Whether both sides continue to feed off this mutually beneficial relationship depends on whether ESPN understands that, no matter how it tries, their on-air and online personalities sometimes do have different sets of rules. The same way a sports team or commissioner might, say, cut a marginal player in legal trouble while cutting a superstar some slack. Anyone ever hear of something like that happening?