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ESPN opinion columnist suspended for having opinions about the NFL

ESPN's Bill Simmons, with College basketball player Isaiah Austin and NBA personality Jalen Rose attend The 2014 ESPYS.
ESPN's Bill Simmons, with College basketball player Isaiah Austin and NBA personality Jalen Rose attend The 2014 ESPYS.
Michael Buckner
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Grantland editor Bill Simmons has been suspended for three weeks by ESPN, the site's parent, for remarks made on a podcast about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. (Full disclosure: In my pre-Vox life, I wrote for Grantland on multiple occasions.) Goodell is facing calls for his firing or resignation in the wake of the league's impossibly bumbling response to Ray Rice's domestic abuse charges.

Rice was eventually indefinitely suspended from the NFL, but his initial suspension was for two games, less than Simmons's current punishment.

Simmons has expressed his dismay at Goodell's continued reign as commissioner in his recent columns for Grantland. He launched into the rant by calling Goodell a "liar," before going on to call the situation "fucking bullshit." Simmons ended by seemingly anticipating his own suspension.

"I really hope someone calls me or emails me and says I'm in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. If one person says that to me, I'm going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner is a liar, and I get to talk about that on my podcast. Please, call me and say I'm in trouble, I dare you," he said.

The full rant is embedded below, and you can read more at SB Nation.

Though ESPN has offered some good reporting on the Rice charges — and Simmons's rant was kicked off by a report from the network's own Outside the Lines, which states that Rice's team, the Baltimore Ravens, engaged in "purposeful misdirection" and that the NFL barely investigated what happened — the network also has deep ties to the NFL. It paid over $15 billion to the league in 2011 for the broadcast rights to Monday Night Football.

While it seems unlikely Goodell asked ESPN to suspend one of its employees for calling him a liar, the situation speaks to how much power the NFL has in the modern media environment. With football increasingly seeming like the only consistent ratings draw in a splintered TV landscape — and the NFL attracting more and more suitors every time rights to games become available — the league can essentially ask for whatever concessions it likes in broadcast coverage.

That has yet to extend to networks' news coverage, but the treatment of Simmons, an opinion columnist, rather than a supposedly "objective" reporter, suggests just how jumpy the situation might be behind the scenes.

And ESPN has had run-ins with the NFL before, most notably when it canceled the scripted drama Playmakers, which the league thought depicted professional football players in a harsh light. Simmons has also had his run-ins with ESPN management and been suspended from Twitter before. Still, Simmons's evident certainty that he would be punished for speaking out becomes all the more intriguing when read in these lights.

And yet, as Simmons frequently alleges and as our own Dara Lind writes based on the Outside the Lines report, even somehow getting rid of Goodell — liar or no — is unlikely to fix the problems in the league. Thanks to how massively profitable even the worst NFL franchises are, team owners wield much greater influence on the league than owners in other leagues. In fact, being called a liar on a podcast is maybe the least of Roger Goodell's — or ESPN's — problems.

But it's definitely the problem that's easiest to plaster over with a too-harsh punishment that's, to coin a phrase, fucking bullshit.

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