Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for…
So, let’s review. The First Amendment doesn’t restrict the activities of private organizations, including the employment practices of private organizations. That’s why it says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Congress, not your employer.
Which means that if you say something your employer doesn’t like, it can suspend you, with or without pay. It can even fire you, as, for example, SiriusXM did to Anthony Cumia of the Opie and Anthony Show after he went on a racist, misogynistic Twitter rant this summer. And as I said before, I have no sympathy for Cumia. His employer, which is in the business of speech, after all, does not have to be affiliated with hate speech if it doesn’t want to be.
But that doesn't mean it’s always a good idea for a private employer to suspend or fire an employee for mouthing off. Sometimes, the employee should mouth off. Sometimes, that’s an essential part of his or her job. That’s particularly true where the private employer holds itself out to be a news organization, and its employee is paid to provide analysis of the news. And it’s all the more true when the employee in question is mouthing off about individuals who wield power and the way they yield it.
I suppose nobody’s going to accuse ESPN of being an actual news organization, but it does cover an area of popular culture that, rightly or wrongly, exerts a tremendous amount of influence in these United States. And because the world of sports has that influence, as disproportionate as it may be, sports frequently intersect major social issues in a way that can’t be ignored. When professional sports leagues finally jettisoned racial segregation (baseball in 1947, football in 1946, basketball in 1950, and hockey in 1958), those events were newsworthy precisely because they represented both our odious national history and our capacity to change for the better. Likewise, when major athletes perpetuate historical wrongs like domestic violence and sexual assault – and when the institutions of sports enable or cover up those wrongs – it’s newsworthy because it shows how far we have to go.
So, at the very least, you’d think ESPN would take its job seriously when it interjects itself into situations where the sports world and the real world collide in a meaningful way.
But, no. As Think Progress reported on September 23:
ESPN’s Bill Simmons, one of the nation’s most prominent sports commentators, emphatically and repeatedly called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell “a liar” on his popular B.S. Report podcast Tuesday, insisting that Goodell knew about the elevator videotape of Ray Rice punching his fiancee prior to it being posted publicly on TMZ. The AP reported that a copy of the videotape was sent to the NFL’s league offices.
On the evening of September 24, ESPN announced Simmons would be suspended 3 weeks.
You can listen to an excerpt of Simmons’ rant on Think Progress. In it, Simmons does indeed call the NFL Commissioner a liar, although on at least one occasion Simmons explicitly qualifies his comments by saying “I think that dude [Goodell] is lying” – which makes it more an expression of opinion than an assertion of fact.
Regardless, it’s absurd for an organization that pretends to engage in sports journalism to suspend an employee for doing what a sports journalist should do: Holding the most powerful man in football accountable for his actions. The NFL is undoubtedly the most influential sports institution in America today, having garnered roughly $6 billion in revenue last season (according to … wait for it … ESPN!), and, as we've established, sports in general hold inordinate sway in American life. So, if ESPN is going to cover the NFL – and it couldn't survive without covering the NFL – and if ESPN is going to weigh in on instances where the NFL runs headlong into major social issues – which the network does, regularly – then, at least in those instances, it ought to act like an actual news organization. Which means, among other things, not punishing its employees for criticizing the NFL or its leadership.
Yet, in the upside-down world that is ESPN, the network claims that Simmons, by criticizing Goodell, violated – get this! – “journalistic standards” (again, via Think Progress). Yes, Simmons used harsh language (although, other reporters at the network have essentially accused Goodell of lying, too); but ESPN may want to look to other news organizations to see what kind of language their journalists and commentators use when they’re talking about individuals in positions of authority. Indeed, the Tampa Bay Time’s Politifact site labeled President Obama’s “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it” the “Lie of the Year” for 2013. Nobody got suspended for calling President Obama a liar, even though that characterization was pretty dicey.
But that’s what journalists are supposed to do. They’re supposed to look at powerful people with a jaundiced eye. They’re supposed to call out people who sit at the top of influential institutions, public or private, especially when those people engage in cover-ups and deception, as Goodell may have done in the Ray Rice matter. If ESPN wants to pretend, at least, that it’s a news organization, it has to let its employees go after the rich and powerful, just like real journalists. Otherwise, it creates the appearance that it’s in bed with the very institutions it’s supposed to cover. Which, of course, it is.
Here’s the kicker, though. Simmons’ three-week suspension is, of course, stiffer than the original punishment Goodell imposed on Ray Rice for knocking his then-fiancé unconscious. Given the unholy alliance between ESPN and the NFL, that sounds about right.