All That and a Bag of Mail: Bill Simmons Is Suspended Edition

BY foxsports • September 26, 2014

Welcome to the mailbag, your place to hide from work on Friday since 2006. (Some of you have been reading the mailbag for eight years now and occasionally you'll email me to remind me how long we've been rolling. Eight years on the Internet is the equivalent to about eighty years in print media life. Thank you for hanging with me.)

In advance, I'm writing this completely out of sorts since the arrival of baby number three. So if there are typos and illogical thoughts, blame baby Nash. 

Our beaver pelt trader of the week is Apollos Hester. Watch his post-game pep talk here.

Now that you're all sufficiently pumped up, on to the mailbag. 

Lots of you asked on Twitter and email for me to address the Bill Simmons three week suspension by ESPN and I tweeted that I would write about it in the mailbag. So here are my thoughts:

First, I'm pretty much always going to be on the side of talent in stories like these. I don't believe in suspensions or firings for opinions, however unpopular they may be. Maybe you can say that I'm biased in favor of the talent because I know what it's like to write, speak into a live mic, or do live television without a safety net on a daily basis, and that's a fair criticism, but I'm never going to be the person who climbs to the top of a pedestal and screams -- FIRE HIM! SUSPEND HER! I'M OUTRAGED! THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE! -- for pretty much any single thing that someone says or does in live media. We aren't the worst thing that we've ever done or said.

I happen to disagree with everything that Bill Simmons said about Roger Goodell. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about you can read about Simmons's ESPN suspension here.) I don't believe Goodell is a liar and I don't believe that he ever saw the second Ray Rice tape. Most importantly, I think the focus on the tape is misguided, it shouldn't really matter whether Goodell saw the tape or not. But I do support Simmons's right to believe otherwise. And to the extent his suspension was based on that, I disagree. To the extent that it was based on saying that he didn't care if his bosses suspended him, I'd side with management there.

But the Simmons story is really fascinating to me because it illuminates several larger questions that are worth exploring. Here are the most interesting issues about this suspension to me. 

1. Ultimately this is a dispute about what it's appropriate to say, write, or do when you're employed by a conservative multi-billion dollar media company.

Why was Bill Simmons hired by ESPN? Because he has a substantial and loyal audience that likes what he does. Why does that audience gravitate to Simmons? Because he writes and talks in a way that others in the world of sports don't. You can probably already see the innate tension here, ESPN hired Simmons to not be like ESPN and then gets upset when he's not like ESPN. How can you get mad at a guy for doing what he was doing when you decided to hire him?

ESPN wants Simmons to expand the reach of their brand -- because it's good business to walk right up to the line of acceptable discourse -- but then they don't want him to step over that line and go too far -- because then that becomes bad for business. The reality is that suspending Simmons, who had increasingly been criticized for losing his edge, is probably the best thing that could ever happen to him. He gets newfound street cred and gets to play the rebel. Sure, he loses three weeks pay, but he probably gains millions in additional pay down the line.  

The most interesting quote from the ESPN ombudsman piece I linked above was this -- "Simmons, Skipper (the president of ESPN) believes, is transitioning into an important influence and mentor at Grantland, and needs to leave his well-worn punkishness behind."

But the reason why people like Simmons is because of his "well-worn punkishness." If he leaves that behind than Simmons becomes pretty much like everyone else at ESPN. Therein lies the battle between creative freedom and big paychecks. Multi-billion dollar businesses want to go where the audience is going, but they don't want to reap the consequences of where the audience is going.

This, by the way, also leads into one of my biggest criticisms of the media today. The media covers the Internet and social media in 2014 like it's still the 1950's. I'll explain this thesis further below.  

In the meantime, I've dealt with this tension between creativity and paychecks quite a bit as well, major companies say they love what you do, but could you just tone it down a bit? My response is often, but you realize that the reason people like what I do is because I'm not toning it down, right? You want the millions of people a month who read Outkick, but you want the edge gone?

Good luck with that.

This is why I started Outkick, so I'd be immune from any editorial criticism. We can say and write what we want here. I think that freedom matters a great deal to a ton of you. But it also creates modern day tension.   

2. Old media is passive, new media is active.   

This ties into a major question: does where you speak matter? I think it does, but some major sports media companies don't really see this distinction yet. I think what I write on Outkick is different than what I say on TV. That's essentially Simmons's argument here -- he's speaking on his podcast, which is a different audience than ESPN or his column. People have to download his podcast. I'd argue that his column is actually similar in this respect, reading it requires active effort. That's different than Simmons's role on ESPN, where most people tune in to watch the NBA, not watch Simmons talk about the NBA. The ESPN TV audience is much more passive. 

This where it's said distinction makes sense to me because I live in a world of three different medias. I primarily break them down by thinking about them from the perspective of an active or a passive viewer.  

Let me explain. Lots of people watch TV by accident. (Generally these people are older). These people don't necessarily turn on a TV show to hear someone say or do something unexpected. When you're on, say, CBS, you've arrived on that station with a certain level of expectation about what you will see there. An old white dude will be challenged and triumph. (This is the basic plot of every CBS show). That's passive viewing, you're allowing someone else to decide what you consume and when you consume it. As a general rule, the more passive the media is, the dumber it is. 

Every month passive viewing becomes more passe. Active viewing is the future, you choose when, what, and how to consume it. Every single one of you reading Outkick right now has made the active decision to come to the mailbag. No one made you come here. You didn't get here by accident. You saw the mailbag was posted and came to read it. Simmons's podcast is active viewing. Every single person who downloaded his podcast made the decision to hear his opinion. You don't end up there by accident.    

To me there's a substantial difference between passive and active viewing. If you choose to consume someone's content, I don't think you should be able to complain about what you see, read, or hear there. You chose to spend your time with it. No one made you go there. There are billions of other Internet sites you could be spending your time on, there are tens of thousands of podcasts, if you don't like what you read, see or hear, then don't return. Let the market decide whether it continues to exist. 

The conflict comes when media gets involved and broadcasts comments from an active audience to a passive audience. And that's my criticism of the way media covers these stories -- the media takes something that an active audience is listening to precisely for this reason, takes it out of context and situational location, and brings it to a passive audience that would have otherwise never known it existed. Read that ombudsman piece again, none of the execs knew what Simmons said on his podcast until it got media attention. It's not what Simmons said to his audience that got him in trouble, it's when others heard what Simmons said outside of his audience that he got in trouble. 

This conflict is only going to continue to grow because the outrage brigades live to be offended by things that they didn't actually see, hear or read until someone else told them to see, hear or read it. A real question we have to answer in the Internet era is this -- are we going to allow people who aren't consumers of someone's content to tell other people they shouldn't be able to consume it either? To me, that's modern day censorship and one of the essential questions of the Internet today. Just because you don't like something doesn't mean it shouldn't exist. This isn't the United States of I can't be offended. I don't get political very often on here because I feel like I'm the last guy or girl in the middle on just about every major issue -- I like moderates from both parties -- but right now it's liberals who get offended and demand things be pulled or people be punished. It used to be conservatives. No political party owns the outrage police, it just moves cyclically. The big question is this -- who gets to decide what people read, listen or watch, the people who actually read, listen or watch, or the people who hear about it second hand and decide it's unacceptable? 

3. How do you reconcile the larger brand with the individual brand?

We've reached an era where the individual brands on the Internet are all that matter to younger consumers. People don't follow Simmons because he works for ESPN, they follow Simmons because he's Simmons. The same is true of me or virtually anyone with an audience on the Internet today. You guys read or listen to me, not because of who employs me. 

So how does a guy like Simmons balance his edgier brand with the larger ESPN brand? This is where I think sports media companies are woefully behind the times in allowing talent to have freedom. Howard Stern is a judge on NBC's "America's Got Talent" show. If you ever listen to the Howard Stern radio show you know that he says a billion things a day that would drive NBC executives batty. But no one ascribes Stern's radio comments to his AGT role on NBC. No one asks the question, how in the world can NBC employ a guy who said (insert "offensive" comments) on the radio? No one complains about Bob Saget's dirty ass comedy routines when he's playing Danny Tanner on "Full House." That's because in the entertainment realm major media companies have come to understand that everything talent says isn't reflective of the company's opinion and that there are different audiences for different active or passive viewers. They also understand that what's said on TV is different than what's said in a comedy club. Go watch Tracy Morgan or Chelsea Handler do stand-up. I have and I love both of them, but good Lord., it makes Simmons's NFL comments seem like a children's bed time story. But no one is demanding that these people be suspended from TV for what they say in a comedy club. That's because we've created a different standard for communication based on where the speech occurs. 

So why is sports still different? Partly it's the way media covers sports opinion makers. When's the last time someone demanded that Chelsea Handler be fired or suspended by Comcast -- or now Netflix -- for something she wrote in a comedy book? Just about never, right? I think this comes back to the unholy alliance in sports -- every sports company isn't really in the content business, it's in the partnership business with the leagues.  

4. It's not what Simmons said, it's that he said it about the NFL and Roger Goodell. 

Sure, Simmons challenged his bosses to suspend him -- which is always a dumb move -- but is there any way that Simmons gets suspended if he says the exact same comments about a Hollywood actor who denied he had committed a crime despite evidence to the contrary? No way, right? The reason why sports companies don't give their talent that much freedom is because they're in business with the leagues. Bill Simmons is great for ESPN, but he's a pinprick of the value to ESPN that the NFL is.

If ESPN didn't have sports rights on television, no one would watch. The business would die. The NFL says it didn't complain about what Simmons said, but the mere fact that the NFL might complain is enough for ESPN to act and suspend Simmons. I don't agree with the suspension on principle, but I totally understand why it happened. Simmons touched the third rail in sports, he went after one of ESPN's business partners.  

R.D. writes:

"Clay,

Congrats on your third child. My wife is currently pregnant and is due November 7th with our first. The doctors think she will deliver a few weeks early, and knowing my luck during the UT-Bama game. I remember the mailbags from last year and still we couldn't plan this better.

Due date aside, as this is my first child, I am having a hard time with the pregnancy. No one told me being pregnant means putting an end to my fun. I have not been able to play golf in months. I have spent my weekends buying furniture, putting furniture together, and searching for any items with a chevron pattern in "our colors." Every time I am about to do something fun, I am presented with some task to complete first.

I was aware of the moodiness, but no one told me she would snore so loud it makes our dog leave the room. Every week I find out a new hurdle or quirk I had no idea was coming.

You constantly settle debates, predict the weather and give advice. Would you ever consider putting out a man's guide to surviving pregnancy??? I have about a month left but would totally pay $30 for 300 pages of advice from you."

Forget about your pregnant wife -- who is probably much more miserable than you are right now and focus on this truth -- people who have children are less happy than people who don't have children. This is a fact that I feel like everyone should know. Statistically having children DOES NOT MAKE YOU HAPPIER. In fact, it does the opposite, KIDS MAKE YOU LESS HAPPY. This should be screamed from the mountain tops. The only reason it isn't is because it flies in the face of the baby-making industry.

We're all supposed to be so happy about our kids all the time. That's crap. If you are unhappy and you have a kid, or if you have a bad marriage and you think a kid will make things better, you are a f'ing imbecile. Your life is going to be infinitely worse with kids. 

What you're experiencing right now is the first moments of realization -- wait a minute, a big part of having kids is going to suck. I'm going to have less fun and less freedom than I ever had before. This is totally true. And no one tells you this in advance. No one has more fun with kids than they did before they had kids. No one. They don't tell you that in the baby books. It's a harsh reality, your life is about to get worse with a baby. But once you accept this fact, it makes your life easier.

I feel like most people who have children expect that it's going to make your life better. The reality is, it isn't. At least not when they're really young. For a large majority of the time, having young kids is miserable work. Now, there are moments of pure joy when something so remarkable happens that you don't think you could ever be happier, but those moments are comparatively rare. Most of the time having young kids is a tough slog. You need to know this in advance. Everyone knows boot camp will suck, but the number of new parents who don't know being new parents will suck is astounding. 

This is because most people think about having kids from the perspective of a being a kid. You don't remember being that difficult because you're viewing things from your perspective. You never knew your parents before they had you. You don't remember how much of an asshole you were when you were really little. Your memory doesn't go back that far. By the time you get to elementary school things get easier. But little kids are assholes that you can't escape forever.

We just had our third kid and he's thrown our worlds into an uproar. The other night I was trying to get our six and our four year olds to bed and I put the alarm on in the house and I looked at the clock and it was 7:16 pm. 7:16! And I had already put the alarm on like "The Purge" was about to happen when night came. There was a 0% chance of anyone leaving my house for the next 12 hours. And I was thinking to myself, "How in the world does anybody have any energy to be outside at night after 7:30? Who are all these vampires?" Right now I am so tired I can barely see the keyboard keys. 

So that's my advice, having a kid is going to suck more than not having a kid did. Once you accept this fact, you'll be better off. It's not you, it's the kids. They suck.  

Right now there are a ton of moms and dads reading this thinking. "Thank God it's not just me, my kids drive me insane and I thought I was an awful person." Nope you're just human. 

Now I love my kids more than anything in the world -- except, maybe, a nude beach orgy filled with Kappa Kappa Gammas -- and once you have kids you'll understand something fairly transcendent and simple -- they're the reason we're here. The entire point of our being on earth is to have kids. Going through life without having kids is pointless. It really is. There isn't a single childless person in their sixties or seventies that doesn't have kids that doesn't wish they'd had kids. They may tell you they don't regret it, but they're lying. Kids are the reason we're here.

Finally, being happy isn't the end goal of life. It just isn't. If the entire goal of life was to be happy, we'd all be dead by the time we're twenty. One of the great ironies of happiness is this -- if all you do is chase happiness, you're actually going to be less happy than if you just live your life.      

Anonymous writes:

"Clay,

I don't know if my wife reads the mailbag, but she definitely follows you on Twitter, so please keep me anonymous. Although given the facts, I'm sure she would figure it out if she read this.

My wife is 40 weeks pregnant with our first child and due imminently. As in, I've gone to bed every night for the last week wondering if I'll be woken up at 3 in the morning ready to drive her to the hospital. However, at an appointment with her OB-GYN on Wednesday, she was told that there was little progress from a week ago, and that baby could be in there "for another week."

I've been really pulling for this child to come out early, and for good reason -- I'm the best man in my best college friend's wedding this Saturday. This isn't in town or even within driving distance; I live in Texas and the wedding is on the east coast, about a 2.5 hour flight away. My wife and I have had various discussions about a "drop dead" date -- if baby comes by Monday/Tuesday, then I can go. However, we are definitely past that point and now my question goes the other way. Can I possibly go to the wedding and risk the baby staying in there past Sunday?

Obviously, the right thing to do is to not go to the wedding, film or Facetime a best man speech and stay with her over the weekend in case she goes into labor. However, it's also possible to just fly out for the wedding, stay for less than 24 hours, and then come back Sunday morning, hoping that she doesn't go into labor or, if she does, that I can get an earlier flight and make it back in time. It should also be noted that the maid (matron?) of honor -- not my wife -- is also pregnant and due around the same time, and will definitely not be attending (I mean, what are the odds of that?). So in terms of "balance" up there at the altar, it will be fine that I'm not there.

So -- is there any chance I can pull this off without getting divorced?"

I think you have to skip the wedding. Even though the odds of your wife actually going into labor and you missing it is comparatively low. That's what makes this decision so tough for you, you're running the numbers and realizing the odds are in your favor. I understand, trust me. I kept traveling to LA while my wife was pregnant with our third. As a dad of three who held one leg during all the deliveries, I was terrified I'd miss the birth of my third son. But at least this was my third.

If you miss the birth of your first kid because of a decision you made -- it's not like you're fighting in Iraq -- then you'll be upset for a long time. And your wife will never forgive you. She'll say she will, but she's lying.

Plus, did you go to the bachelor party? If you did, then you're fine. As much as everyone wants to convince us that their wedding is impossible to miss, it's definitely possible to miss. Unless the bride or groom doesn't show up or someone interrupts the ceremony, all weddings are anti-climactic. As much as you may believe that I will forever regret missing you and your sorority sister dance to, "I've got all my sisters and me," trust me, I will survive  

Donnie C. writes:

"Hey Clay,

Really enjoy your work, particularly in regards to sports TV deals. I was watching the NFL on Sunday and it occurred to me how absurd the league's TV deal is. The most games anyone on cable can get is 6 out of 16 games in any given week (3 Sunday noon/3:15p games, Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights). So that means there are 10 games that viewers aren't getting, and the concurrent starts make it difficult to keep up with multiple games. Now, RedZone helps assuage some of these problems, but sometimes you just want to watch a good game and you are stuck with the Titans down 26-0 after three quarters (sigh).

Why do we accept this as viewers? Remember when CBS owned all of the NCAA Tournament broadcasts and we could only see one game at a time, though the studio could switch? That was fun, and ratings were great. But when they made the move to broadcast all games, it was even more enjoyable as a viewer.

Part of what makes college football Saturdays so fun is the fact that it is 12 straight hours of football. Starts are staggered and independent of each other.

Could the NFL move to a similar model? Wouldn't it be a lot more fun as a viewer If you had two 1p games, two 2p games, two 3p games, two 4p games and two 5p games? And then, every game could be broadcast somewhere so you wouldn't miss out on as much? I would even advocate some of those later start West Coast games, but I know those would struggle ratings-wise on the east coast. Is this something that is a reasonable possibility down the road? It's just insane to me that the most popular sport in the US can only be viewed six times a week."

I had this exact same conversation last Saturday. 

I think you're exactly right on this because of the NCAA tourney model. CBS used to believe that if they put every NCAA tourney game on, people would watch it less. But then they realized that the opposite was actually true, the more games there were, the more we watched. America is a country of gluttons, we always want more of what we like. If you put on every game, the ratings, I believe, would actually increase.  

I watch the Red Zone channel on my Southwest flights back from LA every Sunday. I love that channel. But I'd love it even more if instead of eight or nine games ending at four eastern, they spaced them out and I could watch every game end. Or if the Titans sucked -- okay, this isn't even a hypothetical -- I could flip over and watch another game entirely.

Basically, I agree with you, I think simultaneously kicking off half of the league's product at the exact same time is dumb and I think that limiting viewers to six full games makes no sense. (Sure, you can do NFL Sunday Ticket, but you still have to deal with the simultaneous kicks at one eastern.)  

Drew E. writes:

"Hey Clay, 

Congrats on Nash, awesome name! Ok my question is a your typically hypothetical bar question. What professional sport could an average, in decent shape person (lets use you as our example) play in as a full time member of the team, and the team still be a championship contender? I'd say football is out of the question, because the only real position someone could train for would be punter/kicker, but this position has become too essential for an average joe to play at the highest level. NBA is obviously out. Not sure about hockey or soccer. My argument would be baseball, because if you played for an AL team they could just DH you and take the out each time. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this...
You'res truly," 

It's gotta be baseball. But I think designated hitter is the wrong call. Getting four guaranteed outs a game is giving away an entire inning every game. There's no way you could win with a hitter batting zero. But why couldn't you bring in someone as a relief pitcher, have them intentionally walk a batter, and then remove them for the game? Or only bring in the relief pitcher when the game was decided one way or the other and just have him get shelled.

Relief pitchers are full-time members of the team. That's the absolute answer to your hypothetical.   



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