A 'CULTURAL CONNECTION'
In October, outgoing ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer addressed a reader's concern that, while sports gambling is illegal in every state but Nevada, "ESPN seemingly condoned and encouraged it." While acknowledging that "ESPN is not in the position or the business of legislating morality," Ohlmeyer tacitly rebuked his company by saying that the network "should recognize there is a delicate balance between 'knowledgeable advice' and 'complicit promotion' " of gambling. Ohlmeyer also quoted Robbyn Footlick, executive editor of ESPN the Magazine and espn.com Insider, who said the network saw espn.com's pay wall as "a distinguisher and an opportunity for gambling content" such as Chad Millman's "Behind the Bets" column.
Bill Simmons, however, is behind no pay wall. Far from it — his "BS Report" podcasts are hyped from espn.com's front page, resulting in two million downloads a month. During this past NFL season, half of them had at least some gambling content, featuring either Millman or comedian Sal Iacono (a/k/a "Cousin Sal" from the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show, where Simmons was once a writer).
It's not just hypothetical gambling advice, either. In addition to his Super Contest efforts, Simmons constantly brags (or laments) of his extracurricular plays. On the January 24 edition of the "BS Report," he acknowledged his "sizable wager" on Kevin Durant to win the NBA's MVP award, and called the Super Bowl proposition on which player will score the game's first touchdown "a bet that really separates those of us who have gambling problems from those who don't."
Simmons has come a long way, parlaying his early "Boston Sports Guy" super-fan persona into an impressive cross-platform résumé: besides his work for espn.com, he's appeared on ESPN's E:60, he's an executive producer for the network's outstanding 30 for 30 documentary series, and his two books, Now I Can Die in Peace and The Book of Basketball, were both best-sellers. He has over a million Twitter followers. (Full disclosure: in his early days, Simmons freelanced for this newspaper. While we're at it, I have placed bets on sports.)
Is it far-fetched to wonder whether a reporter of Simmons's stature could — even accidentally - influence the betting line of a game he had money on? Reporters have access to information of great value to bettors: for instance, knowledge of a nagging injury to a star player that doesn't show up on a team's official injury report. A reporter who had access to such information - especially one who bet on the game - might have an incentive not to report it. Regardless of whether or not the reporter profited directly, such a scenario could provide the appearance of impropriety that respectable news organizations seek to avoid.
On his January 24 podcast, after the New York Jets had upset the Patriots, Simmons claimed (and Iacono confirmed) that he knew, the week before the game, that Tom Brady had a stress fracture in his foot - a detail the Pats didn't report until after the season ended. Simmons had money on the game. "I don't know when they should say something and when they shouldn't," Iacono opined, referring to several unreported injuries, including Brady's. "There's a lot of fantasy [teams] and a lot of money being thrown around [on] gambling. So I think we should know."