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ESPN Suspends Bill Simmons For Criticizing Roger Goodell; Throws Away Last Bit Of Journalistic Integrity

We'd be shocked if we didn't already write about this problem back in mid-August.
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UPDATE (9/24/14): I felt compelled to basically repost this article I wrote back in August under the title 'The NFL and ESPN Have an Impotency Problem' because as I sat on a balcony overlooking the ocean during a much-needed vacation, I read that one of my personal writing heroes, Bill Simmons, just got suspended by ESPN for a "breach of its journalistic standards" that occurred during an episode of his podcast, The B.S. Report, when he call Roger Goodell a liar (anyone that claims it was the use of profanity isn't a regular listener of the show). I wish I could say I was shocked, but as Wesley Lowrely of the Washington Post tweeted:

What's a bit interesting though, is that 'Clairvoyant Bill' must have seen this coming. In that same podcast, Simmons dared ESPN to suspend him and threatened to sever ties with the company he not-so-secretly resents:

"I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. Please, call me and say I’m in trouble. I dare you.”

The news is still breaking so sadly right now the biggest stories you're going to see are either reactions from relevant to semi-relevant people and then a swarm of stories that sound a lot like this one.

Just remember where you read it first (and maybe sign-up for a Daily Banter subscription?). For those of you that only want to read the ESPN-relevant parts, jump four paragraphs from the bottom. You're welcome.  

I don't know how to feel about the fact that this article has been on the back-burner for almost two weeks, yet thanks to an almost daily update of professional athletes being suspended for one reason or another, it’s still a timely topic.

This week's latest suspendee is Orlando Scandrick of the Dallas Cowboys, who is suspended the first four games of the season for testing positive for MDMA (aka Molly), a banned substance he admits he was persuaded into taking (not knowing what it was, of course) while on vacation with his girlfriend in Mexico. And no matter what you think of the suspension length, it is consistent with other punishments handed out for violating the league's substance abuse policy, as a strong majority of the 59 SUSPENSIONS doled out since September of 2012 for violating said policy were for four games.

It also happens to be two games more than the amount of time Baltimore Raven’s star running back Ray Rice will be suspended for after being caught punching his girlfriend in the face and dragging her unconscious body out of elevator:

And while that may seem unfair, just as Orlando Scandrick's punishment was consistent with previous cases, so is Rice's. Roger Goodell even made sure to defend the punishment publicly by assuring us that "It [had] to be consistent with other cases, and it was.” And if you're up to date on your "Who's Been Suspended How Long and For What" NFL trivia, you know he's not lying.

But since not everyone has a working knowledge of all past NFL suspensions, let’s take a look at some of the more noteworthy ones.

  • in 2006, Albert Haynesworth was suspended 5 games for stomping on lineman Andre Gurode after the play after Gurode’s helmet had come off.

  • in 2007, Adam “Pacman” Jones was suspended 4 games for attacking a stripper and threatening a security guard’s life. He was also suspended in 2008 another 4 games for an “altercation" with a bodyguard.

  • in 2007, Tank Johnson was suspended 8 games for possession of unlicensed weapons (including loaded assault rifles) and a violation of his parole on other charges

  • in 2009, Michael Vick was suspended 2 games for his involvement in the totally sane and normal world of dogfighting

  • in 2009, Donte Stallworth was suspended 16 games for killing a pedestrian while driving under the influence

  • in 2010, Ben Roethlisberger was suspended 4 games for violating the league’s player conduct policy when he was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year old girl in a bar bathroom. She dropped the charges citing too much unwanted media attention and the D.A. admitted he couldn’t prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but the accuser never recanted her accusation.

  • in 2010, Vincent Jackson was suspended 3 games for violating the league’s player conduct policy when he was pulled over and briefly arraigned for driving on a suspended license and expired tags.

  • in 2011, James Harrison was suspended 1 game for hitting Brown’s QB Colt McCoy too hard.

  • in 2012, various New Orleans Saints players were suspended between 3 and 16 games for their participation in a bounty program.

  • in 2013, Richie Incognito was suspend 8 games for hazing and harassing teammate Jonathan Martin.

  • in 2013, Erik Walden was suspended 1 game for head-butting Delanie Walker.

That means that the following infractions warrant a 1-game suspension:
- hitting a quarterback too hard
- head butting another player

This costs you 2 games:
- getting arrested for significant involvement in dogfighting
- punching your girlfriend in the face and dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator (and getting caught on camera)

This costs you 3 games:
- driving on a suspended license and having expired tags

This costs you 4 games:
- violating the league’s substance abuse policy
- attacking a stripper and threatening a security guard’s life
- “altercations” with bodyguards
- sexually assaulting 20-year olds in bar bathrooms

This costs you 5 games:
- stomping on a player after a play

This costs you 3-8 games:
- participating in a bounty program that incentivizes winning at all costs with piles of cash (a concept completely foreign to the NFL)

This costs you 8 games:
- hazing a teammate with a long list of derogatory and homophobic slurs

This isn’t consistency, this is a roulette wheel of punishment that’s tipped to favor whatever the formula of “Star Power + Public Outrage + Media Attention Longevity” dictates. Since 2000, there have been 83 arrests of NFL players for domestic abuse and you can be sure that since 82 of them weren't captured on grainy security-camera footage that was easily shared on social networks, that’s why you never knew the number was that high.

But consistency isn’t even the worst problem; these slap-on-the-wrist suspensions are an impotent form of discipline to begin with. To delve into some basic criminology, our societal disciplinary system relies on something called the Rational Choice Theory, which posits that a "criminal weighs the chances of getting caught, the severity of the expected penalty and the value to be gained by committing the act. This means that if offenders perceive the costs to be too high, the act to be too risky, or the payoff to be too small, they will choose to not engage in the act.”

Essentially, it’s the “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” approach.

And four weeks has proven time and time again to be too short a time to deter NFL athletes from doing the kinds of things that their team’s PR personnel would like them to stop doing. According to Rational Choice Theory, to really curb behavior that is unwanted in the league, the NFL would have to take a harder line when it comes to doling out punishment. For comparison’s sake, after becoming aware of the situation involving Christy Mack being assaulted by her MMA fighter boyfriend Jon “War Machine” Koppenhaver, Bellator Fighting Championships (BFC) immediately released Mr. Machine and issued a statement saying: "We have a zero tolerance policy here at Bellator when it relates to any form of domestic violence.”

Except the dirty open secret is that the NFL doesn’t want to punish its players unless it has to. It’s bad for the player’s image, its bad for the team’s image, and most importantly for the league, it’s bad for the league’s image. It’s all about image. That’s why nothing drives up the amount of games a player is suspended for better than a good old fashioned bout of public outrage. If the public and the media won’t stop talking about a bounty program, the league is going to have to make sure that the punishment they dole out is enough to assuage those upset. However, having said all that, there's something no one from either side says out loud but knows deep down to be true: even during the sharpest, loudest cries of condemnation towards the NFL from its fans and public interest groups and even politicians, there's not going to be any bite to match that bark.

When Ray Rice was announced during the pre-game introductions last Thursday for the Ravens-49ers preseason game, the crowd roared with applause. They did it again after his first run. ESPN’s Jamison Hensley even made a point to note that "no boos were audible during either instance.” And this whole offseason, all we’ve been hearing about is the heinous racism regarding the Washington Redskins’ name, with moving YouTube videos and impassioned speeches and calls for boycotts en masse. Only when it came time for the Skins' first preseason game, 67,327 paying customers filled up FedEx Field and the Washington Post was too busy talking about new coach Jay Gruden and putting this picture up as the accompanying image to discuss anything like racial insensitivity:

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Fans (admittedly and a bit ashamedly myself included) just haven’t reached that point where we’re actually able to walk away from the game they (/we) love. One might hope that eventually the slew of information about concussion repercussions, players’ off-field activities, owners’ out-of-the-VIP-suite activities, and all the other crap that sucks about professional football would eventually wear down those diehard walls enough that fans say "make some changes or else," but that optimistic approach relies on said slew of information being delivered to the people that need to hear it, and that's where it gets tricky...

A journalism outlet like ESPN is, in theory, in charge of delivering that information, but since ESPN is also very much a broadcast network, it's in their best interest to maintain a friendly partnership with the major sports leagues like the NFL, meaning ESPN's editorial filter has to be at least somewhat structured with that in mind. Those that buck that editorial invisible hand's push too much or bring too much shame to the ESPN family name end up subject to the same kinds of inconsistent, impotent suspensions that NFL players are familiar with (see: Dan Le Batard's billboard).

Take Max Kellerman, who was suspended from his radio show and Sportsnation for telling a story on ESPN-LA Radio from decades ago about a time in college when he and his then-girlfriend got in a drunken fight which resulted in her slapping him and him slapping her in return. Except as it turns out, it wasn’t Max’s confession, delivered to help spur real conversation about domestic abuse, that got him suspended (side fact: that girlfriend eventually became his wife, who he is still very much happily married to 20 years later); it was because he was actually discussing the Ray Rice situation too much, a topic that ESPN brass had apparently put the 'highly sensitive' tag on. New York Daily News even reported that "ESPN personalities were warned to measure and consider their commentary as soon as Rice's two game suspension was handed down by commissioner Roger Goodell."

So what do you do when you can’t trust the people who have the information and have the outlets to discuss real issues when they aren't sharing that information and are actively avoiding those discussions? Second-tier sports news sites actually trying to have meaningful discussions aren't privy to the kinds of information and access that behemoths like ESPN and Fox Sports enjoy, so those large "journalism" outlets have a responsibility to us to not subjugate information for the better of unrelated (but, let's face it, completely interwoven) business ventures. Only this is the real world and that most likely isn't ever going to happen because we're talking about rich people and their money, meaning that even with a 24 hours sports news cycle, there's always going to be a lack of real information.

And a lack of information turns into a lack of informed viewers. Those uninformed viewers turn into uninformed fans. Those uninformed fans turn into uninformed consumers. And those uninformed consumers keep this whole thing going until something drastically awful happens, causing us to wonder what could have possibly prevented it.

Maybe a four-game suspension?