MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
ESPN is taking on a firestorm of criticism for its three-week suspension of Bill Simmons, the high-profile columnist and commentator, after he sharply criticized NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. In a profanity-laced rant this week on his podcast, the BS Report, Simmons repeatedly called Goodell a liar. And this once more throws into sharp relief the tension between ESPN's dual roles as a journalistic operation and a leading broadcaster of NFL games. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now. And David, why don't you walk us back and explain what Bill Simmons said specifically that got him into such trouble with ESPN?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Sure, Simmons spoke in a genial tone of voice. But if you're listening what he talking about, it was a dead serious issue - involved the former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice. He knocked unconscious his then fiancee, now his wife, in an elevator in Atlantic City, New Jersey early this year. And TMZ obtained a video from security camera showing that actual punch. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said hey, I hadn't seen that. We haven't seen that. And Simmons in this podcast is saying he doesn't believe it.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST)
BILL SIMMONS: 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.
FOLKENFLIK: I think it's worth underscoring there, he's not simply saying I don't believe him. He's not simply saying I don't find that credible. He's saying he's a liar. Those are very, very strong words.
BLOCK: Yeah. And saying he's a liar time and time again in that podcast - Bill Simmons suspended from broadcasting and writing and also posting on his Twitter account for this three- week period. And in part, David, this is so dramatic because of the standing of Bill Simmons within ESPN and among his fan base.
FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, he came up as the voice of the uber-fan. He kind of propelled his way into ESPN with a column that they felt was indispensable to people who wanted to think about sports all the time. He created a column, a podcast. And he also was the one who came up with the inspiration for the much lauded "30 for 30" documentary series and created ESPN's Grantland, which is a website devoted to long-form writing.
He's really become a marquee player there in an important way that transcends however many clicks or viewers he attracts to ESPN. He has been suspended before. And also I think it's worth noting that that particular exchange on Roger Goodell was laced with profanities and that he taunted his own bosses to punish him. If you listen to what he had to say - here's a little clip of that as well.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST)
SIMMONS: I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I'm in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. Because -
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, I don't - I think it's pretty safe.
SIMMONS: - If one person says that to me, I'm going public. You leave me alone.
BLOCK: Well, David, it's interesting because there's been a lot of criticism about this move by ESPN to suspend Bill Simmons. But there are a number of other voices within ESPN that have also been very very critical of Roger Goodell and the NFL.
FOLKENFLIK: Right - hard to say that the network's leading faces and figures have been silent on this issue. ESPN's Keith Olbermann has been calling for Goodell to resign since August. And he's been calling on him to be fired more recently. Others, such as Jason Whitlocl and Hannah Storm have been very tough on the League. And the investigative reporter Don Van Natta has really led some very aggressive coverage challenging the official version of events from the NFL and from the Baltimore Ravens. So, you know, in a sense, ESPN can't be blamed for ignoring this issue and the seriousness of it, at least of late. The ombudsman has even taken note of that and said so in a column this week.
BLOCK: But, David, let's talk about this, too, because there's been a lot of criticism for ESPN because of its financial ties with the NFL for broadcasting "Monday Night Football" - $15 billion contract, which raises all sorts of conflict-of-interest questions.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, that's right. I think a lot of people suspect that ESPN is acting more as a business partner of the NFL in this matter than as a journalistic enterprise, even despite the coverage we've just talked about. And certainly they are incredibly intertwined.
I think that was more viscerally the case if you looked at an earlier episode. A year ago, ESPN backed out of a partnership it had with PBS' "Frontline" to produce a documentary about concussions and the ensuing brain damage it caused to NFL players, even though that documentary was based on the reporting of two of its reporters. And, you know, that was an incredible embarrassment for the network, because it had done so immediately after pressure from the NFL to distance itself from that documentary. The network notably didn't distance itself from its reporters' work. But at the same time, it was a very key example of the ways in which ESPN and the NFL are partners rather than separate institutions - one journalistic and one athletic.
BLOCK: OK, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
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