There's an old political theory among economists that says everything we obsess about during presidential campaigns is pointless. We can spend all the time we want tracking the horseraces, poring through polls, analyzing every second of every debate, and none of it makes a bit of difference. Like everything, the economists say, it comes down to money. If the majority of Americans are happy with how the economy is going (or think the person who best represents the status quo will best address the economy going forward), they will keep the incumbent in charge. If they're not, they'll go with change.
Everything else, the entire political analysis megacomplex, it's all stagecraft, empty theater. All that matters is the money. All that ever matters is the money.
I thought about this last night, when word came down that ESPN had suspended Bill Simmons for three weeks after he had basically dared them to do so. On his podcast, Simmons called Roger Goodell a "liar," but many believe the real reason he was suspended was because of his dare afterward: "I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I'm in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell, because if one person says that to me, I'm going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner's a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast ... Please. Call me and say I'm in trouble. I dare you."
Not that whether it's an internal ESPN policy matters or not: The suspension -- in large part, one suspects, because of the irony of it being one week longer than Ray Rice's initial suspension for domestic violence -- immediately became national news; Lena freaking Dunham was Tweeting about it, and it got its own feature on the "Today" show this morning, right after UN ambassador Samantha Power explained current American policy on ISIS and Ebola.
What Simmons said about Goodell isn't different than what other ESPN employees have said about Goodell, namely Keith Olbermann (though he was a bit more eloquent about it). Everyone's calling Roger Goodell a liar these days. It's the hip new rage. Look, check it out: Roger Goodell is a liar. It feels good, doesn't it? I can say that without the slightest worry about being suspended by Sports On Earth or MLB Advanced Media (the owner and operator of Sports On Earth). Liar, liar, liar! Weee!
But why can I say that? Because no one at Sports On Earth and MLB Advanced Media has a business deal with the NFL, and thus I would never think that calling Roger Goodell a liar would put me at any danger with my bosses. It wouldn't even occur to me. There are things that I could say that would put me in trouble with the brass, or (more likely) at least get me a call asking me to explain myself. This does not mean I would not say them (and have not said them, and have not gotten calls about them). It's just that I know what those things are, and you know what those things are: They're things that affect the business interests.
There was once a wall between editorial and business at every publication in the country. Those days are gone. When you criticize a business interest of your controlling company, you do so knowing full well what you are doing. It's why Simmons felt compelled to put his dare at the end of Goodell criticism. He knew the business people would be angry with him. That's what gave his criticism extra bite in the first place.
That's why ESPN's claim that this is an "internal matter" rather than a reaction to what Simmons said about Goodell doesn't hold up to any scrutiny. The list of human beings Simmons could have called a liar without consequences is basically infinite. Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL (a league the network has no deal with): Go ahead! Character actor John C. Reilly? Fire away! Miss Cleo? Sure! Your Uncle Terry? Go get 'em, Bill! What mattered was not necessarily that Simmons had called Goodell a liar: What mattered was that Simmons knew this was a sore spot, a stress point, for the network. That's why the dare happened. And that's why ESPN had to act. All that Twitter noise this morning, and Carson Daly explaining it on the "Today" show while Syria burns? That's all ephemeral -- soft, unquantifiable media. None of that compares to a call from the NFL's Park Avenue headquarters. (Ask PBS.) That's cash.
Simmons, for all the good he has done, remains an unlikely martyr for corporate interference on press freedom. This is yet another chapter in an ongoing Simmons-vs.-his-bosses drama that has gone on for more than a decade now. Simmons began his ESPN career as an insurgent -- remember, he was first noticed by Page 2 editors because of a running diary he wrote making fun of the ESPYs -- and he has worked hard to fortify that reputation even as he has become more entrenched within the company.
Shortly after he signed a four-year contract extension in 2007 he said "I didn't want to leave. I didn't shop myself around." Soon after, he recommenced grousing about the network and even once told me, when I was at Deadspin, that "I'm not writing for ESPN.com as much -- my choice, not theirs. That's just the way it will be from now on, unfortunately. I still love writing my column and only re-signed last year because I really did believe that we had hashed out all the behind the scenes bullsh-t and come to some sort of agreement on creative lines, media criticism rules, the promotion of the column and everything else on ESPN.com. Within a few months, all of those things changed and certain promises were not kept. It's as simple as that."
Two years later, he re-signed with ESPN again and almost immediately became the network's biggest star, with Grantland, "30 for 30" and his work on the NBA pregame show. Simmons served a few Twitter suspensions in that time -- and there is something inherently strange about suspending an employee from Twitter; "for three weeks, you are not to provide free content to a third-party Website … or else" -- but those just served his alleged "outsider" brand even further. The suspensions (like, ultimately, I suspect, this one) allowed Simmons to look like the oppressed party even as he moved higher up the food chain. It's beginning to feel like David Stern fining Mark Cuban as they laugh about it together: It's censorship theater, a way for both sides to look tough without actually risking anything.
Simmons' contract is up again next year, and I am sure there will be constant speculation that Simmons will be looking elsewhere, that he's not happy, that "promises were not kept." And I'm sure he'll re-sign, like he always does, and we'll go through all this again in a couple of years about something else.
Simmons is smart, and deep down, he knows this, which is why he inevitably comes back to ESPN every time. Because it doesn't really matter what any of these people say on television, what Simmons says, what Stephen A. Smith says, what Chris Berman says. They're just window dressing, time filler until actual sports come on. NBC Sports Network and Fox Sports 1 are both trying to challenge ESPN by having different attitudes toward sports - NBCSN by bringing in the "Men In Blazers" guys, FS1 by letting idiots like Frank Luntz and me on the air -- but none of that makes a difference either. All that matters, the only reason that ESPN has become so powerful, is that ESPN has the live sports that people want to watch. Fox Sports 1 has been on the air for more than a year, and it won't be until the baseball playoffs begin (FS1 is showing the NLCS and one of the NLDS) that most people will even know where it is on their dial.
That's how this works. Simmons must feel bulletproof by now, but he isn't. None of us are. It's almost encouraging, in a way. All of us, people like Simmons, and Smith, and the Men In Blazers, and Frank Luntz, and me, no one tunes in to watch us, at least not in any appreciable way to make a difference.
Fans want to watch sports. Which is good! But it also puts forth a calculus for networks that makes a choice between getting yelled at by Lena Dunham and half of Twitter and getting yelled by the sports league they have a billion-dollar deal with not much of a choice at all. All this conversation, all this chatter, all this typing, it doesn't mean anything other than just a bunch of people who pay way too much attention talking to each other. People want to watch sports and move along with their day. That's where the money is. And that's why Bill Simmons was suspended. You can find that an outrage. You can be appalled. But you won't stop watching sports. Which means that's just the way this is going to keep working, forever.
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