Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Briar Patch of Fame and Fortune

The sports writing of Bill Simmons leaves me cold. Simmons' career as an entrepreneur of sports commentary leaves me breathless with admiration, never more so than this morning.

Simmons managed to turn a podcast with a respectable audience in which he offered the very ordinary opinion that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is lying about the Ray Rice mess into a national news story by provoking ESPN into giving him a three week suspension for his words, specifically the words challenging his bosses to punish him for his opinion. This has transformed Simmons from one of thousands of sports talkers talking about the same thing into a martyr for the First Amendment, a pigskin John Peter Zenger calling 'em as he sees 'em.  Millions more Americans know that Bill Simmons disapproves of Goodell than did had ESPN ignored his little diatribe. Millions more Americans know who the hell Bill Simmons is than did yesterday and do so in a story in which he looks good -- at least compared to its other parties.

Don't misunderstand. I don't believe Simmons made his remarks with publicity aforethought. He spoke in the heat of his belief in his opinion. The ancillary benefits he will draw from expressing that opinion were the result of an unconscious gift for enterprising self-promotion, an instinct for his game that, as the cliche goes, can't be coached.

As in many stories, Simmons vs. ESPN has a much more interesting villain than hero. Why did Simmons' employer martyr him in the first place? Why generate an incident that even the dimmest boss's nephew intern could perceive as making the network look just awful?

The obvious possible motive, the one which does the most damage to ESPN's public image, is that the network punished Simmons to truckle under to the NFL for fear of offending the business partner whose games make ESPN a lot of money. Like many obvious suspicions, this one wilts a bit under closer scrutiny.

For one thing, ESPN itself is the source of the reporting that has most damaged the NFL's credibility in the Rice case, reporting that pretty much calls out an entire NFL franchise, the Ravens, as an institutional liar. No one thinks this has damaged its business relationship with the league, and they shouldn't.

ESPN broadcasts NFL games on Monday nights because it has paid well over a billion dollars for the rights to do so. The league has changed rightsholders more than once over the past decades, always for the same reason. Some other network made a higher bid. That and that alone could sever ESPN's ties with the NFL. Words will never hurt a multi-billion dollar business enterprise unless they're uttered by a federal judge.

Institutional groupthink causes far more organizational catastrophes than does venality, and it is my belief this is why Simmons is enjoying a theoretically unpaid vacation today. ESPN is, after all, a subsidiary of the most famously rigid and humorless corporation in the country, Walt Disney Co. No other business has as many rules for its employees. Authoritarianism is in Walt's frozen DNA.

I also think that having been dared by Simmons to suspend him, ESPN executives let their emotions rule and took the dare. They are probably ruing their action this morning. By lunchtime, they will see the silver lining.

Truth is, bad publicity will have about as much effect on ESPN as on the NFL, little verging on none. As long as ESPN's networks keep broadcasting live sports events, it will continue to win the blue ribbon as Disney's prize cash cow. It's not as if television executives have much of a public image to damage anyhow.

Let's consider where Bill Simmons fits in the ESPN empire. ESPN has its endless sports broadcasting empire, from NFL games to College Gameday, and a smaller but aggressive straight journalism operation based primarily on its Website and magazine. Bill straddles both of these operations, the primary reason for his uneasy relationship with his bosses. This was not his first suspension.

As a journalist, Simmons is the founder and guiding spirit of Grantland, the long form journalism subsite on which produces a goodly amount of excellent work. Grantland's reputation and audience can only be enhanced by Simmons' new status as National Sports Truth Teller.

Within the entertainment empire division of ESPN, Simmons' highest profile role is as one of the commentators on the network's NBA pregame and postgame shows. These shows suffer the same problem as pre- and postgame  shows for all sports. They're terrible television, being 90 percent talking heads either speculating about an event that's going to be over in a couple of hours, or commenting on an event the viewer just saw.

Ah, but what if the shows contain a talking head with a national reputation for confrontational honesty, who might upset the applecart at any moment in a blaze of apparently self-destructive righteous anger? Can't hurt those ratings. Confrontation is the essence of television entertainment.

Is it cynical to note that Simmons' suspension will end several weeks before the start of the NBA season? I prefer to think of it as recognizing ESPN's management can't possibly be as dumb as it appears to be here. Maybe they even know something about the history of their own business.

Long before mobile computing or the Internet, before cable television even, there was a sports commentator who straddled the divide between journalism and entertainment. He never held back an opinion, no matter who it offended, and never stopped boasting about that, either. He was by far the most famous sports commentator of his era, adored by million, and loathed by millions more who somehow couldn't stop watching or listening to him.

Just a guess. ESPN sees Bill Simmons as a possible Howard Cosell for the 21st century. If so, his suspension wasn't discipline. It was marketing.


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