Bill Simmons and ESPN’s Ombudsman: Is Goodell enough of a “certified liar”?

In his column on Bill Simmons’ suspension, ESPN Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte comes off as blissfully unaware of how ESPN’s action looks — parroting and even sanitizing the company line.

For those who missed the details, Judd Legum nicely sums up the silliness of the suspension: “ESPN Suspends Bill Simmons For Calling [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell A Liar, After ESPN Reported Roger Goodell Is A Liar.”

What really happened is the network suspended him primarily for taunting and thereby implicitly criticizing his superiors, but more on that in a bit.

As for whether Simmons should be allowed to call Goodell a liar, Lipsyte insists that, until there’s “a smoking gun that proves when the NFL viewed the Ray Rice video” (emphasis added), Simmons is off base. Until and unless such a smoking gun emerges, Roger Goodell is not a “certified liar”, Lipsyte argues.

Contrast this with what Simmons actually said on his podcast: “Goodell, if he [says he] didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar.” (Emphasis added.)

There is a major difference between seeing a video and knowing what is on the video, and conflating the two is exceptionally sloppy for an award-winning journalist.

To help illustrate: Thanks to several young children, I know a great deal about “Frozen”, despite not having seen the film.

If I watch Frozen this weekend and say, “Wow, I had no idea it would have so much singing!”, I would be a liar. If I were to claim that I had desperately wanted to see the film earlier, but before that point, I had had no way to see the film — you know, as opposed to deliberately having avoided some pretty clear opportunities — I would be a liar. Just like Roger Goodell is a liar. A lying liar who lies.

(Also, I dare Roger Goodell to sue me for libel.)

Simmons’ actual claim — that Goodell knew what was on the video and is lying when he says otherwise — were already well-documented by the fine investigative piece by Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg published on Sep. 19 — that is, days before Simmons’ Sep. 23 podcast for which he was suspended.

Goodell fibbing about whether he knew what was on the tape is only part of what Van Natta and Van Valkenburg identify as “a pattern of misinformation and misdirection employed by the Ravens and the NFL since that February night.”

Of course, to accuse someone of a “pattern of misdirection and misinformation” is to call them a liar, albeit using five-dollar words.

In a now-infamous CBS interview, Goodell says explicitly that he had no idea what was on the video. Not only has ESPN reported that several insiders say otherwise, as Simmons himself pointed out in a Sep. 11 column, “back in July, two well-connected reporters (Chris Mortensen and Peter King) reported what NFL sources had told them happened in that second elevator video … and they got the details correct.”

Follow those Mortensen and King links (reproduced from Simmons’ column). For those of you who couldn’t stand to watch the video but wanted to know what was on it, Mortensen’s account is startlingly accurate. Again, this is from July and based on his insider access to league sources.

What Peter King wrote should, in hindsight, be viewed as an even bigger deal than what Simmons implies:

There is one other thing I did not write or refer to, and that is the other videotape the NFL and some Ravens officials have seen, from the security camera inside the elevator at the time of the physical altercation between Rice and his fiancée. I have heard reports of what is on the video… (emphasis added)

King walked back this claim on Sep. 8, after the video was leaked and the league denied that anyone had seen it earlier:

Earlier this summer a source I trusted told me he assumed the NFL had seen the damaging video… The source said league officials had to have seen it. This source has been impeccable, and I believed the information. So I wrote that the league had seen the tape. I should have called the NFL for a comment, a lapse in reporting on my part. The league says it has not seen the tape, and I cannot refute that with certainty. No one from the league has ever knocked down my report to me, and so I was surprised to see the claim today that league officials have not seen the tape.

Again, he wrote in July that the league and team had seen the inside-the-elevator tape. Then, over a month elapsed without anybody pulling him aside and correcting him.

To understand how significant this is, you have to know Peter King’s place in the NFL universe: one of the least critical, best-connected reporters whose rolodex of sources is a close approximation of “everyone”. King regularly takes calls from, and casually calls, league sources all year. He’s widely known as a friendly mouthpiece. (This is mostly true of Mortensen as well.)

If Peter King says something that the league doesn’t think is accurate, or even something they would like to add to or clarify, to any degree, King is essentially guaranteed to receive — and take, and respond to — a call from an insider.

The last sentence from King’s Sep. 8 correction is as close to damnation as we are likely to see from him on this point. It rightfully implies that (especially coming from him), “No one from the league has ever knocked down my report to me” pretty much speaks for itself.

Thus, Roger Goodell is a liar, on this and many other counts. Simmons says as much. Then, alluding to his past troubles with ESPN, he dares them to discipline him, and they take the bait.

Little wonder the network is being excoriated all around the web. Deadspin points out that Simmons was merely “restating conventional wisdom.”

Business Insider fairly characterizes it as a hint “at the idea of corruption and censorship” at the network.

As if on cue for their entry as the protagonist in a Greek tragedy, management has enacted a suspension that proves Simmons’ implicit point splendidly. They’ve provided pretty good evidence that certain people (management) cannot be criticized, and that others (NFL leadership) should generally be criticized only in the most high-brow language — five dollar words only, please, and only when the evidence is incredibly overwhelming.

The suspension is feeding already-extant skepticism about the network’s ability to consistently (as opposed to intermittently) allow their talent to reach their own conclusions and share these publicly.

It is reminding many fans and writers of the network’s 2013 decision to pull out of its partnership in the “Frontline” documentary about concussions in football. Right now, Google News shows 788 results for [Simmons suspended Frontline documentary].

The message to Simmons was, undoubtedly, “You can’t criticize us publicly like this.” That is chilling enough. A substantial portion of the population, though, hears (at least in part), “You can’t criticize our content partner like this.” Even if that’s not the real motivation, the optics are (to quote Charles Barkley) just turrible.

This is where an Ombudsman is supposed to provide an outsider’s corrective — a reassurance to the reader that well-founded outside criticism will always have at least one ally in the building.

The more defensible (and, in reality, motivating) reason Simmons was suspended was for dissing management. While Lipsyte alludes to this (implying that the suspension is also due to management’s “thin skin”), he opens and closes by insisting that this story is really about whether Simmons had the goods for his claim — and he concludes that Simmons didn’t have the goods.

That takes real chutzpah from somebody who substantially misrepresents the claim in question.

Even as the hordes crash at the gates in Bristol, the Ombudsman — the Ombudsman — writes to reassure us that management basically got this one right, without even deigning to rebut claims that this sure looks like a result of the network’s conflict of interest. “Obviously I disagree” with such critics is all we get. When the very integrity of the network is being questioned, blowing off those questions is tone deaf indeed.

Goodell is a liar. Simmons was correct in calling him a liar. And ESPN was some combination of corrupt and petulant to discipline him for it.

If even the Ombudsman is this tone deaf, ESPN still has a lot of tuning up to do.

#FreeSimmons