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A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In recent years, dogfighting and taking steroids for the purpose of setting the all-time record for home runs have been widely held as the greatest sins an athlete could commit against God and country. But in recent weeks, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Jonathan Dwyer have reminded us that there is no greater transgression than to harm a woman or child. To my knowledge, Roger Goodell has never hit a woman or a child. Yet the NFL commissioner, because of his power to effect change, is currently more reviled than any player charged with criminal misconduct.
Long before those elevator doors revealed what really happened to Janay Palmer (now Janay Rice), Goodell was in a tough spot. His task was to market football in the fantasy sports era to a mostly snarky audience that insists real sports meet the expectations of rotisserie leagues and video games.
Bill Simmons is among the most prominent citizens in the sports community. The “Sports Guy” jostles athletes for position as he demands joint custody of The Game. During NBA telecasts, Simmons was literally given a seat at the table with Magic Johnson to drive home the belief that the opinion of the sports fan is every bit as valuable as the insight of the sports icon.
In a profanity-laced diatribe on his podcast, The B.S. Report, Simmons called Goodell a “liar,” asserting that Goodell knew what was on that elevator video but had done nothing about it. I think Simmons was sincere in his beliefs. I believe he was speaking for all of those fans who might feel the same way.
Simmons’ employer, ESPN, has a $15 billion obligation to cover the games and events of the National Football League. To do that credibly, they must appear “objective.” Someone has to bear the standard for that “objectivity” — to, in essence, take one for the team. Simmons was the obvious choice for the role. That’s because Simmons massive holdings are still firmly entrenched in the NBA. Yes, he covers the NFL. But, if Chris Mortensen or Adam Schefter, ESPN’s top NFL reporters, had gone rogue, we’d really have something to talk about. But as it stands, Simmons’ tirade and subsequent three-week suspension are nothing more than theater.
I say that because after Simmons spoke his piece, he actually “dared” ESPN to punish him. It seemed disingenuous. It reeked of the formula: A pundit says something inflammatory, his employer obliges the public with a punishment and the whole thing is forgotten until the next so-called “controversy.” But this latest saga does have some intrinsic value. It demonstrates how a giant entity deals with customer service issues.
We watched in stunned disbelief as women came to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore wearing Ray Rice jerseys. Some even defended his actions. If there’s an answer for why Rice was initially suspended for just two games, this was it. The Baltimore Ravens fan base, like all fan bases, contains a gaggle of folks who take escapism to the extreme. Sure, there were 5,000 fans who came to the stadium to exchange their Rice jerseys, and the Ravens organization was happy to honor their requests. But the team also serves those fans who don’t care what the players do off the field as long as they win games. I believe that’s the interest Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti initially protected.
ESPN embraces that same fringe. That much ballyhooed story that ESPN reporter Josina Anderson did on Michael Sam‘s showering habits was juvenile in tone. But there are certainly adolescent and post-adolescent men who would be terrified to bathe with a gay man. Anderson filed that story — with the consent of her producers — because ESPN values the homophobic fan as much as it does the progressive one.
I’m grateful to ESPN for giving me my first opportunity to write. While I was a member of that community, my friend and mentor — the late, great Ralph Wiley — once said: “All a man has is the integrity of his work.” I love football because everything that happens on that field is real. I know that the successes, the failures, the pain and emotion are genuine and unscripted drama. I can’t say the same for everything that happens at ESPN.
Alan Grant is a former NFL defensive back and ESPN writer.
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