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ESPN Cares More About Protecting the NFL Than Reducing Domestic Violence

What Bill Simmons's suspension tells us about the network's priorities

Getty Images/Amy Sussman

Over the past few months, an ever-growing number of sports organizations have downplayed the significance of domestic violence. Now, ESPN has added itself to that list.

On Wednesday night, the network suspended popular basketball analyst Bill Simmons for three weeks after he called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a liar over whether he knew about the in-elevator tape of Ray Rice striking his then-fiancée. Here’s what Simmons said on his podcast:

I just think not enough is being made out of the fact that they knew about the tape and they knew what was on it. Goodell, if he didn't know what was on that tape, he's a liar. I'm just saying it. He is lying. I think that dude is lying. If you put him up on a lie detector test that guy would fail. For all these people to pretend they didn't know is such f------ b-------. It really is — it's such f------ b-------. And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted. I really was.

Simmons went on to challenge ESPN to suspend him for his comments. “I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I'm in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell,” he said. “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.” ESPN’s justification for suspending Simmons was vague, simply saying that he did not meet ESPN’s “journalistic standards.” Presumably, they did not approve of Simmons calling the NFL commissioner a liar.

Is he a liar? That’s still unclear, but there is strong evidence that might be the case. Goodell has adamantly denied that the NFL knew the contents of the tape before TMZ released it on September 8. But last week, Don Van Natta and Kevin Van Valkenburg reported for ESPN that "Rice told Goodell that he hit her and knocked her out, according to four sources.” It’s of course possible that those four sources are either lying or have the story wrong. But Simmons was just saying what the evidence seems to indicate. Is that really in violation of ESPN’s standards? In fact, on Tuesday, ESPN’s ombudsman praised Simmons for his comments, including it in part of the “strong coverage and commentary” from the network.

What’s worse, Simmons suspension is three times as long as ESPN suspended Stephen A. Smith in July after Smith, in talking about the Rice incident, argued that women should not provoke men into domestic violence. That’s a very clear signal of the network’s priorities.

As I wrote on Tuesday, the gross incompetence—and potential cover-up—of the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens and now ESPN makes it “easy to get caught up in the Twitter-fueled frenzy for a scalp.” To an extent, Simmons was caught up in that as well in calling for Goodell’s resignation. But what ultimately matters in the Ray Rice saga is whether the NFL makes a significant commitment to reduce domestic abuse and help the victims of it. The league has taken small steps so far in donating money to domestic violence hotlines and mandating all team employees to go through training about abuse. But it must do much more. As Jonathan Cohn has written, it should involve a substantial check to help fund research into domestic violence as well.

The commissioner—whether it is Roger Goodell or someone else—must take the lead and force the league make such a commitment. So far, Goodell has not proven up to that task. By calling for his resignation, Simmons and many others were pressuring the commissioner into taking stronger action and proving that he understood the severity of domestic violence.

ESPN relieved Goodell and the NFL from some of that pressure by suspending Simmons. The network has sent a clear message to its writers and analysts that such derogatory comments against the commissioner will not be tolerated. And that’s only going to make it harder to force the NFL to actually make a commitment to reducing domestic violence.

A previous version of this article misstated the first name of ESPN reporter Kevin Van Valkenburg.