I have a ton of empathy for Bill Simmons right now because I too was once sacrificed at the alter of ESPN’s broadcast partners. This was about ten years back. My creative partner, David Levien, and I got a call from a producer who said he had an idea for a series that ESPN loved, if only they could find someone to really figure out the story and write it.
The show was to be a drama called The Fix that would be set at an NCAA division one school; the story of the season would be how and why a college football game would be fixed.
Levien and I went up to ESPN and had a terrific meeting. They loved our take on the idea and wanted to hire us to be the creators and executive producers. It was at this point, that we asked the question: “but guys,” we said, “are you ever really going to be able to put a show like this on the air?”
The head of programming (who’s no longer there) turned to the room and said: “if you guys write the pilot you are talking about writing, we will green light the season.”
“But what about the NCAA?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Being young(ish) and fascinated by the premise, we agreed to write the pilot. We turned it in, the head of programming called us. “I love it. You delivered. We are going to make it. Come to the office tomorrow so we can officially do this, but go to sleep tonight knowing you are going to be running a show for me.”
Next day, we head back up to ESPN. But the faces we see ringing the conference table are far from buoyant. We know before the Head of Programming even begins speaking.
“Can’t green light the show, fellas. NCAA negotiations are coming up.”
“Broadcast partners. We had thought they were okay with it. But when they read it…”
“You showed them our script?”
“The point is: we’re sorry. How would you like to write a show about poker?” And that’s how we ended up creating Tilt, which they did green light and air. (Truth is, the invitation to write a poker show happened a few weeks later. The rest is exactly how it went down).
When Simmons got suspended this past week, I immediately flashed back to The Fix. He made the same mistake we and the head of programming did. He forgot that ESPN will never really bite the hand that feeds it. Sure, some of its news shows might feature a bracing look at the story, and Olbermann might make a smart, cutting remark or two, but if you cross some imaginary line, make it personal somehow, call attention to the real hypocrisy at play–you will be smoked.
ESPN will always act in its self interest, as the top people at the network define the term. That doesn’t make the company unique, or evil, at all, that’s what companies do. But ESPN holds itself as something more, as a journalistic organ, as an institution that challenges the PR machine.
Earlier this year, ESPN dropped out of the concussion documentary that they were supposed to do with PBS. And now, they’ve silenced Bill Simmons.
They may say it’s because he violated a journalistic principle by calling Goodell a liar without a smoking gun. But as rational adults, we have to know that’s not why they did it. They did it because he got personal with a broadcast partner, they did it because he has the biggest microphone, the biggest audience, they did it because they need to reassure the NFL that they want to be back to business as usual just as quickly as the league does.
Look: I am not objective here. I have known Bill for 13 years, I write for Grantland, Levien and I made a 30/30 that Bill executive produced, and I host a podcast on the Grantland Network. Beyond that, I am a huge Bill Simmons fan. I think he changed the way sports are covered, the way a whole generation of people watch sports, the way those people talk about sports. I am also a dedicated ESPN viewer and have been for longer than I can remember. ESPN is an important part of my life–that 30/30 is, obviously, an ESPN program. I love ESPN. Which is why I wish they had seen this moment for the opportunity it actually was, instead of taking the opportunistic easy way out and impressing Goodell and the NFL with how they discipline even their most valuable employee when he steps out of line.
I haven’t spoken to Bill about what his plans are. I hope he’ll be back, writing and running Grantland, as soon as his suspension is up. And I hope that he will not modulate his approach even a little bit. Because if this incident changes the way he does his job, then ESPN, this place I value so much, will have cost itself a great deal more than just its journalistic credibility.