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May 08, 2015

Columnist Bill Simmons, ESPN to part ways after 15 years

Media ESPN

ESPN's most well-known and popular columnist will soon be a free agent.

Bill Simmons, who began at the worldwide leader almost 15 years ago and has been behind some of the company's most successful ventures in recent years -- like Grantland.com and the "30 for 30" documentary series -- will not have his contract renewed after it expires this fall.

The news was first reported by The New York Times.

“I decided today that we are not going to renew Bill Simmons’ contract," ESPN President John Skipper said in a statement. "We have been in negotiations and it was clear it was time to move on. ESPN’s relationship with Bill has been mutually beneficial - he has produced great content for us for many years and ESPN has provided him many new opportunities to spread his wings. We wish Bill continued success as he plans his next chapter. ESPN remains committed to Grantland and we have a strong team in place."

Grantland, the popular sports and entertainment site Simmons founded as an offshoot of ESPN.com, will continue to operate without its founder.

“It long ago went from being a Bill Simmons site to one that can stand on its own,” Skipper told the New York Times. 

Simmons' decade and a half with ESPN has not been without controversy, however, as he has been suspended multiple times in the last couple of years, often due to criticisms of ESPN properties or corporate partners.

In March of 2013, Simmons was suspended from Twitter for blasting an episode of First Take that featured Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and ESPN's Skip Bayless. 

Then came the big one, when Simmons went after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell -- specifically his handling of the Ray Rice incident -- last fall on his extremely popular podcast, the B.S. Report. He was suspended for three weeks after daring his bosses to fire him in a rant that went a little something like this

"I just think not enough is being made out of the fact that they knew about the tape and they knew what was on it," Simmons said. "Goodell, 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. For all these people to pretend they didn't know is such f------- bulls---. It really is. It's such f------- bulls---. And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted. I really was.
“The best point that a lot of people have made about this is this is exactly why he fined and suspended Sean Payton for a season [for Bountygate]. Sean Payton was like, 'I didn't know.' He [Goodell] was like, 'Well ignorance [is not an excuse]' and suspended him for a year. This is the same exact situation and it's worse, because he knew and he's a liar… I don’t like liars. I think that people who you know they are lying and they are lying anyway, those are the worst people.We know you are lying … Roger Goodell has no integrity whatsoever."

However, the comments and ensuing suspension only served to boost Simmons' celebrity and power at ESPN, and although Skipper told The New York Times that incident had nothing to do with their decision to let him walk, it's hard to believe it didn't at least factor in a little bit.

More from The Times about the aftermath of Simmons' suspension:

But his future at ESPN became a cause célèbre last year when the company suspended him for three weeks for calling N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell a “liar” during a podcast and effectively dared his bosses to fire him. Simmons became a free-speech martyr during his absence, with the likes of Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow supporting him. Those who spoke out on his behalf on Twitter used the hashtag #FreeSimmons.”

That's a scary situation for a company to be in. Every time they suspended or disciplined Simmons he seemed to become more popular, more powerful, and -- at least to them -- dangerous. If people were this worked up over a three-week suspension, what would happen if word came down from Mickey Mouse headquarters that Simmons needed to be fired?

It wouldn't have been pretty. 

So ESPN did that thing they do, where they just let their top talent walk out the door. They truly -- and correctly -- believe the brand will outlive any of its talent. Just ask Dan Patrick, Rich Eisen, Erin Andrews, Jim Rome, Rachel Nichols, Josh Elliot ... and the list goes on. 

Maybe if he keeps up his criticism of ESPN, the company will hire him back in a bigger role. It seemed to work for guys like Jason Whitlock and Keith Olbermann. 

For now, though, Simmons will move on to the next thing, whatever that is.

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