Bill Simmons says he can't defend Mark Cuban's gay joke. But Poynter defends ESPN.

Bill Simmons tells the Poynter Institute that he cut Mark Cuban's homophobic joke from a podcast earlier this month because, "From our standpoint, had we left that joke in the podcast, we would have been condoning it." Simmons made his first public remarks about the incident to Jason Fry of ESPN's Poynter Project (a partnership between ESPN and the Poynter Institute that monitors the network's ethics) in a story published this afternoon. Simmons adds, "We certainly weren't trying to hide the joke or protect Cuban -- there were 2,000 people there, including a few of my bosses, and 50 to 75 bloggers and writers.” 

ICYMI, Cuban made a juvenile gay joke during a live interview on stage at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference -- an exchange that was being taped for Simmons' iTunes-topping podcast, the B.S. Report. And, unfortunately, almost none of those 2000 people in the audience -- bloggers, writers, bosses, NBA GMs -- made any public statement about it. It wasn't until nearly a week later that the Phoenix broke the story of the remark -- noting that it had been edited out of the podcast -- and called for Cuban to apologize. After Yahoo! Sports picked up and elaborated upon the story, Cuban issued a heartfelt public apology on his blog. 

Simmons continues: “I can't defend the remark -- it just felt like it came out of 1987 or something. [Cuban] was trying to be funny and bust my chops and ended up saying something dumb -- we both knew immediately that he screwed up. He tried to backtrack and I tried to move things into a different direction, because what else was I going to do? He was definitely more subdued for the next few minutes; I actually had trouble keeping the interview entertaining because he became a little gun-shy after that.”

In defending Simmons, Poynter's Fry makes what strikes me as a curious and particularly weak point: "We think Simmons did a good job moving things along at Sloan," Fry writes. "Confronting Cuban about a foolish misstep might have sparked headlines, but it would have marked the end of a more-interesting discussion about sports business, which was what the audience was there for."

Um, wait -- what? There are at least two odd assumptions in that formulation. One, that Simmons did something selfless in avoiding the headlines he'd have sparked by taking Cuban to task on the homo joke (when it's quite clear that Simmons was actually taking the path of least resistance). And two, that an ethical journalist, weighing in his head the options of confronting a bigoted statement and giving the audience what it wants, is justified in ignoring the former in the service of indulging the latter. If that kind of dopey ethical formulation came out of the ESPN marketing department, you wouldn't bat an eyelid. But seeing it given the Poynter stamp of approval is sort of depressing. 

Simmons tells Fry that the Cuban episode is not the first time he and his producers have edited a sophomoric joke out of the B.S. Report, and that the decision to cut the Cuban remark was the podcast's alone: "We don't give guests the option of asking after the fact to remove a quote or comment -- we make those determinations ourselves."

Which is why Fry, speaking for Poynter, defends the decision to cut the remark from the broadcast. "Simmons and Jacoby made the kind of decision they’d made before as producers. The difference was that this time the exchange happened before an audience, which knew a guest had gone over the line. That was unfortunate, but we don’t see it as a clear-cut reason to handle the situation differently."

I understand Fry's thinking: Simmons made a completely defensible decision, given the limitations of his audience's expectations and the limitations of podcasts in general. But Poynter's duty isn't just to play umpire, to call balls and strikes -- it's also to coach, and suggest how journalists can do their jobs better.

More troublingly, Fry also completely ignores any suggestion that ESPN, as an institution, had an obligation to report on the fact that the owner of an NBA team -- that would be the same NBA responsible for this -- publicly made a dumb homophobic joke.

If I were writing from Poynter's perspective, here's two constructive points I'd have made to Simmons and the folks at ESPN: 

Point one: as a longtime B.S. Report listener, I can recall at least a couple of occasions where Simmons has used a very, very long bleep in the podcast -- censoring out what presumably is a really, really off-color joke by Jimmy Kimmel sidekick and B.S. Report regular Cousin Sal. As censorship goes, the conspicuously-long-bleep is actually pretty transparent: it tells you that something was said, and that it was totally inappropriate. Simmons understands what's funny about that -- and also what's true about it. He wants the audience to know that something was taken out. He could've done something similar with Cuban. After all: nobody's mad that Simmons deprived his audience of a chance to hear Cuban's offensive joke. What's unsettling is the perception that Simmons allowed Cuban -- wittingly or unwittingly -- to get away with making a homophobic remark in front of an audience of sportswriters, team managers, league officials, and ESPN brass.

Which leads me to point two: even a long bleep may have been enough to explain what Cuban did. And the fact that it didn't occur to Simmons to explain the edit is in some ways a reflection of the structural limitations of podcasting: there's an illusion of a podcast being a linear, uninterrupted conversation. What's the podcast equivalent of a footnote? And is there anything else Simmons could've done, short of bleeping the joke or omitting it entirely, that would've been more honest? Well, certainly. There could've been some text notation on the show notes with an explanation of the edit. Or Simmons could've found room in some other medium -- say, devote 100 words of his widely-read, longform column -- to an explanation of his decision. Or how about this: Simmons -- or any one of the dozens of ESPN reporters and writers at the conference that day -- could've walked up to Cuban with a microphone and said something like this: "Listen, about two thousand people just heard you make an inappropriate remark. We're editing it out because we don't want to offend people, but is there anything you want to say for yourself?" And then Cuban could've given some longer or shorter version of the apology he eventually gave. 

And ESPN's homepage would have been full of rainbows and unicorns and kitty smiles, forever and ever amen. 

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