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Bill Simmons suspended: brazen, profanity-laced rant forced ESPN's hand (+video)

ESPN commentator Bill Simmons called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a liar and dared anyone to challenge his right to do so. ESPN couldn't ignore that, experts say.

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Bill Simmons contributes to ESPN's NBA Countdown show in this file photo. ESPN has suspended Mr. Simmons for three weeks after he repeatedly called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a liar during a profane tirade on a podcast.

Don Juan Moore/ESPN/AP/File

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The National Football League's Ray Rice controversy has taken down yet another high-profile sports figure, but this time, from the wider circle of sports commentary.

Sports news behemoth ESPN suspended commentator Bill Simmons for three weeks on Wednesday for profanity-laced comments he made during his Monday podcast, both calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a liar and daring anyone to challenge his right to do so.

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With commentators like Mr. Simmons flitting among social media, television, and podcasts, the rules of what is acceptable and what isn't are becoming less clear. The line between entertainer and journalist has been badly blurred.

But the nature of Mr. Simmons' rant essentially forced ESPN to take action, experts say. Not only could there have been legal implications, but ESPN would also have looked like a house in disorder if it had allowed Simmons to make an explosive and unsubstantiated claim so brazenly, they say.

The suspension is a reminder that, even in an emerging and unsettled new media landscape, there are lines, and they occasionally have to be drawn.

"It has become more difficult for journalists to understand when it is OK to be a fan and when one has to be a journalist," says Eric Zillmer, a sports psychologist and the athletic director at Drexel University in Philadelphia, via e-mail. But "ESPN wanted to separate themselves clearly from the meaningless chatter that is associated with sports talk radio."

Reaction to the video of former NFL player Ray Rice punching his fiancée in a casino elevator has been strong and mixed. Various news reports have provided evidence to suggest that Mr. Goodell either could have or should have seen the casino video.

But "a smoking gun is required to unequivocally corroborate Simmons' words," says Patrick Rishe, an expert on sports economics and an economics professor at Webster University in St Louis, in an e-mail. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph contained a different university affiliation for Professor Rishe.]

Simmons had no such evidence.

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“When you start calling someone a liar without hard evidence to support the claim, this can lead to legal repercussions,” Rishe says. It also does not show much “journalistic integrity to flatly make claims without 100 percent proof.”

In a statement, ESPN noted that "every employee must be accountable to ESPN and those engaged in our editorial operations must also operate within ESPN's journalistic standards."

The suspension is a message both to the public and especially ESPN's workers that the company must draw a line, says Derek Arnold, a communication professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia. 

"It put ESPN in a spot where it might have looked like they would have lost control of one of [their] star columnists if [they] didn’t act quickly and decisively," he says.

As it is, some say it looks like ESPN caved to business pressures. ESPN has a lucrative contract with the NFL to broadcast Monday Night Football. While the network has covered the ongoing NFL scandal, “this action gives the PR perception that ESPN was influenced by NFL and took this action under pressure and fear of losing the contract,” says David Johnson, an Atlanta-based strategic consultant, in an e-mail.

For the NFL, it gives the impression, “fairly or unfairly that it used pressure to punish a critic,” he says.

But ESPN has its brand to think about, too, and Simmons was too much of a loose cannon, say others.

"It's another example that you can't say everything that comes to mind," says Ben Hordell, brand strategist and managing partner of DXagency. "It’s not just Bill’s opinion; it reflects on ESPN as a brand."

This is not the first time that line has been crossed, adds Drexel's Professor Zillmer. And "it will not be the last time. It is just that the line is moving and that is the unfortunate arbitrary ingredient in ESPN's decision."