Friday, November 20, 2009

ESPN is missing the point

ESPN's decision to suspend columnist Bill Simmons from Twitter for two weeks [Mediaite] is the wrong move. The suspension wasn't highly publicized, but came out as the result of an investigation by Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead, which prompted editor-in-chief Rob King to write a blog post explaining the decision. Here's King's statement:

"We have internal guidelines designed to inform how we discuss the topic of sports media. These guidelines are important us, because they help maintain the credibility with which ESPN operates.

No one knows the guidelines better than Bill Simmons, and he customarily works within these standards. He also understands, as does everyone else at ESPN, that we regard these guidelines as being equally important when participating in social media.

While it's unfortunate -- and sometimes painful -- that not everyone outside of ESPN chooses to play by such rules, we choose to hold ourselves to higher standards. Regardless of the provocation, Bill’s communication regarding WEEI fell short of those standards. So we’ve taken appropriate measures."

The offending tweet? Mediaite figures it's this one from November 11, "Hey WEEI: You were wrong, I did a Boston interview today. With your competition. Rather give them ratings over deceitful scumbags like you." This is interesting, because WEEI and ESPN have a partnership. It's quite possible that the ESPN policy (described here) would kick in for trashing any media outlet, as that's what its language seems to indicate, but this is not the ideal test case for the subject; even if the partnership has nothing to do with the suspension whatsoever, the optics are not good.

The larger problem here, though, is ESPN's approach to their writers and personalities. It's not that ESPN is necessarily draconian; in fact, King went to great lengths to make that point at the final Blogs With Balls panel in Vegas.

"I’m not trying to run anyone off Twitter," he said. "A lot of the things we’re building up allow people to contribute in the same way they would on Twitter."

To me, that shows the core problem here. It's one that's far from unique to ESPN, as just about every major media outlet has run into this with the rise of the Internet (and even earlier). The problem is that many media organizations, especially those in print, regard their columnists and reporters as invariably associated with them, which is simply not the case these days. Most prominent people in sports media appear on a variety of platforms, from print to radio to television to Twitter. In my mind, it's wrong to think that just because you hire someone to write certain things for you, you're associated with everything they do and need to have control over them.

How can we tell that ESPN approaches their talent this way? As King says in the above interview about the policy, "The second sets out additional guidelines and responsibilities for public-facing employees — those who are easily and commonly associated with ESPN (talent, reporters, etc.). Unfortunately, their relative fame and public personas mean that the way they act and the things they do will be associated with ESPN and its editorial, entertainment and/or newsgathering organization. As such, there are additional responsibilities from a professional standpoint."

I can understand where King is coming from here. Slamming WEEI probably would not look good on ESPN. It should never happen in a news story on or on SportsCenter, and you can make an argument for editing those kinds of references out of the columns of a writer like Simmons; they diminish the reality and the impact of the column, making it a more watered-down version, but it's ESPN's site, so it's ultimately their choice what gets displayed there. The problem, though, is that Simmons criticizing WEEI doesn't mean ESPN is criticizing them. Media outlets all over the place employ columnists for the primary purpose of sharing their views; when such pieces are clearly marked as opinion, it's understood that those are the opinions of the columnist in question, not the larger organization.

The same logic should apply to Twitter even more so. Simmons' tweets (and the tweets of every other ESPN personality) are not published by ESPN. They're published by Twitter, which is a free service. Presumably, he is writing them on his own time, not company time. Thus, there really is no connection to the company.

Now, that doesn't give Simmons or any other employee carte blanche; if they start tweeting about committing crimes or blasting groups along racial or sexual lines, that is a problem. That reflects poorly on them as a person, and poorly on ESPN for hiring them. However, complaining about a radio station does not measure up to that standard; it's a legitimate opinion to have and to express, on his own time, away from company mediums.

The biggest problem with ESPN and other media organizations taking these kind of disciplinary steps is that they insult the intelligence of their audience. No one really thinks Bill Simmons' tweets represent the views of ESPN, just like no one thinks Jay Mariotti's drivel represents the thoughts of FanHouse or Jason Whitlock's views are shared by everyone at Fox Sports. We recognize that columnists and personalities have their own views, which are often poles apart from those of their organization. They should be allowed to express those views, not shut down in the interests of defending their organization from a non-existant wave of bad publicity.

This is rather counterintutive in terms of results, too; I doubt many people cared when Simmons took a shot at WEEI (which he's done before in his books), and I highly doubt that people at WEEI thought ESPN was blasting them. It was a non-story. The heavy-handed approach taken to shut Simmons down is a much bigger story, and it's created a mountain out of a molehill. If I was ESPN, I'd let Simmons back on Twitter ASAP, maybe add a disclaimer that his views don't represent those of ESPN in case there's anyone out there who doesn't get it, and let him get to work. His engagement with fans on Twitter and snappy lines about sports is only further building his brand and helping to promote his column, which coincidentally happens to run on ESPN's website. Take the muzzle off and reap the pageviews.


  1. Good take, Andrew.

    The rub is it's a legitimate opinion, but there are better ways to do it than "deceitful scumbags," which would get you sued for defamation if used in print or over the airwaves.

    ESPN might have overreacted — I agree most people can make the distinction between "Bill Simmons, ESPN" and what he posts on Twitter. They might be behind the curve.

    At the same time, and heavens knows none of us are anywhere near perfect, with the success Simmons has had he should try to rise about the rabble and ignore WEEI, or at least be more creative in his insults.

  2. Yeah, I agree that there certainly are better ways for Simmons to blast WEEI than calling them "deceitful scumbags" on Twitter. It's not something that really impacts his credibility, though, and he didn't do it on an ESPN platform, so their response is an overreaction in my mind.

  3. Andrew, great article. I think the other thing to consider is that very large companies often react in very consevative ways to anything that can be percieved as negative. And we are talking about the 'world wide leader' here.