TIME

Why So Serious, Roger Goodell?

Jack Dickey is a reporter for TIME focused on culture and sports. He is also a contributor to Sports Illustrated.

The shallow and spineless posturing of the NFL commissioner

On Wednesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell proposed to owners a tougher personal conduct policy for the league’s players. And the owners accepted: the new policy, the league said, will “embrace” independent investigations of player conduct off the field. In order to herald the coming change, Goodell also participated in a front-page feature for the Wall Street Journal in what appears to be the latest of many attempts to reassert the commissioner’s reputation for seriousness.

Monica Langley, an admired reporter who usually profiles titans of industry like Steve Ballmer and Jamie Dimon, scored “a series of interviews over a period of weeks this fall as the commissioner was caught flat-footed in the unfolding controversy.”

Here are some excerpts, which Deadspin’s Tom Ley called an “attempt to turn Roger Goodell into Robert Kennedy navigating the Cuban Missile Crisis”:

Late into the night on Sept. 10, executives in the NFL conference room brainstormed over ways to prove the commissioner wasn’t covering up for Mr. Rice. Pizzas arrived but no slice was taken until Mr. Goodell ate. He never did, and the slices turned cold in the box.

NFL General Counsel Jeffrey Pash suggested an independent investigation run by former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller. “Call him now,” Mr. Goodell said, despite the late hour.

As Mr. Goodell reviewed the cases with advisers, he jumped to take calls at his desk. During one, he told his twin 13-year-old daughters he wouldn’t be home for dinner. He also took calls from owners and player representatives begging for leniency. “Let me be clear,” Mr. Goodell barked to one caller, “we’re taking him off the field.”

Around that time, a friend, General Electric Co. Chief Executive Jeff Immelt, told Mr. Goodell to “stop and apologize now,” Mr. Immelt said. “This is fast-moving and deeply felt.”

National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver and Mr. Goodell compared notes over lunch at 21 Club in Manhattan. “You can learn from what we’re going through,” Mr. Goodell told him.

More than any other person in the sports world, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wishes to convey that he is a serious man. He is unfailingly humorless, both in his public appearances and his interactions with his players. He tries to look the whole package, too. He’s a workout freak, so he can never be an empty suit in the most literal sense, and he’s cribbed Clint Eastwood’s perpetual squint at trouble in the distance. In spite of the sport’s essential rowdiness, Goodell has always been that way—he once told FORTUNE that as a six-year-old he looked up to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.

The funny-as-hell thing about Goodell’s seriousness is that it’s a pose. A goofy, dopey, dishonest pose, one that frequently falls apart under the tiniest scintilla of scrutiny, be it a sympathetic player facing punishment or mounting medical evidence of the game’s longterm ravages. His seemingly careful moral calculus then gets laid bare as a PR strategy, and typically not a very good one, either.

This happened most recently less than three months ago, with the controversy over TMZ’s Ray Rice tape. NFL insiders had leaked to all the appropriate veteran reporters that league brass had investigated the matter thoroughly. As the story went, the league had seen the tape of what happened in the elevator and punished Rice appropriately, with a two-game ban. Then the tape came out, and Goodell then insisted publicly that neither he nor anyone at the league had ever seen it. He determined, too, that Rice now needed a stiffer suspension, which went from two games to a two-game ban he thought too lenient but wouldn’t adjust, to an indefinite suspension, to no suspension, at the behest of a retired federal judge who said Goodell had “abuse[d his] discretion.”

I’ve read the Journal piece over a few times, and I can’t tell whether it’s high satire—the Journal, in the driest tone imaginable, laughs at the transparent method Goodell employs in hopes of recreating an image he had to abandon on account of transparent phoniness earlier this fall—or just another too-credulous account of a lightweight commissioner. (An aside: It’s also hard to tell which details Langley got firsthand, and which came from sources, or what ground rules she may have agreed to in order to get access. It’s hard to imagine the most important detail to come from an all-hands crisis meeting at NFL headquarters concerned the pizza.) It looks a lot like the latter, owing to the accretion of these details and this passage, too:

Meantime, the Rices are fighting back. Last month, an independent arbitrator awarded Mr. Rice reinstatement to the NFL. Janay Rice—now his wife—accused Mr. Goodell of being dishonest when he had said Mr. Rice misled him about the punching. “I don’t take those things personally,” Mr. Goodell said.

For those of you scoring at home, that’s a non-defense of what would be a substantial lie for Goodell, if Rice is telling the truth. But he’s allowed to brush it off as nonsense from a disgraced couple. These are the perks, apparently, of being a very serious man.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Music

Taylor Swift on 1989, Spotify, Her Next Tour and Female Role Models

Taylor Swift Time Magazine Cover
Photograph by Martin Schoeller for TIME

The 24-year-old pop star spoke with TIME this fall as she readied for the release of her new album and again as she watched its record reception. 'Other women who are killing it should motivate you,' she says

To read all about Taylor Swift’s rise and significance, check out the feature story on the singer in this week’s magazine. But not everything could fit in the story, so here’s the rest of what Swift told TIME. The moment’s most successful recording artist has big theatrics planned for her 2015 tour. And she’s praying for an Iggy Azalea cameo. While she struggles to name a role model in the music industry, she finds herself looking up to Mariska Hargitay, the actress behind Olivia Benson, and Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, these days.

For the rest of Swift’s thoughts, including why she ditched streaming music service Spotify, how she writes a song and the media’s portrayals of women, here are excerpts from our conversations.

Why did you leave Spotify? I’m in an office of people who are upset they can’t stream your music.

Well, they can still listen to my music if they get it on iTunes. I’m always up for trying something. And I tried it and I didn’t like the way it felt. I think there should be an inherent value placed on art. I didn’t see that happening, perception-wise, when I put my music on Spotify. Everybody’s complaining about how music sales are shrinking, but nobody’s changing the way they’re doing things. They keep running towards streaming, which is, for the most part, what has been shrinking the numbers of paid album sales.

With Beats Music and Rhapsody you have to pay for a premium package in order to access my albums. And that places a perception of value on what I’ve created. On Spotify, they don’t have any settings, or any kind of qualifications for who gets what music. I think that people should feel that there is a value to what musicians have created, and that’s that. I wrote about this in July, I wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. This shouldn’t be news right now. It should have been news in July when I went out and stood up and said I’m against it. And so this is really kind of an old story.

What was the goal of your new album, 1989?

With 1989, I was really putting my neck on the line, because I was the one saying I need to change directions musically. And my label and management were the ones saying “Are you sure, are you positive? This is risky.” And I was the one who had to come back every time and say, “No, this is what we’re doing.” When I put forth an album cover that didn’t have half my face on it, and tried to convince my label that this was the best way to sell an album, you know, I got some kind of interesting side-glance looks. But I knew that this was the best cover to represent this record, because I wanted there to be an air of mystery. I didn’t want people to know the emotional DNA of this album. I didn’t want them to see a smiling picture on the cover and think this was a happy album, or see a sad-looking facial expression and think, oh, this is another breakup record. When I wanted to call the album 1989, people on the team questioned that. Every single element of this album has been called into question, and I’ve had to say “No, this is how we’re doing it.” And the fact that we came out and did the kind of numbers we did in the first week—you have no idea how relieved I was, because it was all on me if this didn’t work. It was a little hard to sleep the night of the album release.

There’s a song on my album called “All You Had to Do Was Stay.” I was having this dream, that was actually one of those embarrassing dreams, where you’re mortified in the dream, you’re like humiliated. In the dream, my ex had come to the door to beg for me to talk to him or whatever, and I opened up the door and I went to go say, “Hi,” or “What are you doing here?” or something—something normal—but all that came out was this high-pitched singing that said, “Stay!” It was almost operatic. So I wrote this song, and I used that sound in the song. Weird, right? I woke up from the dream, saying the weird part into my phone, figuring I had to include it in something because it was just too strange not to. In pop, it’s fun to play around with little weird noises like that.

I am in love with catchy melodies and hooks that are stuck in your head for days, and ideally weeks, and even months. I really love it when I hear a song, and all of a sudden, my next two weeks are spent trying to figure out how to get that song out of my head. I think there’s a way to artfully do it. I want people to have songs that I write stuck in their heads, but I don’t want it to absolutely perturb them that they have the song stuck in their head. I’m talking about songs that sound like they were cooked up in a lab. Like, anything that makes you think there are eight songwriters on this.

A question about “Shake It Off,” the lead single: I had never read someone saying you stay out too late.

Oh, that was just a good first line. Yeah.

What does writing a song do for you?

I see a lot of celebrities build up these emotional walls around themselves, where they let no one in, and that’s what makes them feel very lonely at the top. I just keep writing songs. And I kind of stay open to feeling humiliated and rejected, because before being a quote-unquote celebrity, I’m a songwriter. Being a celebrity means you lock your doors and close your windows and don’t let people in. Being a songwriter means you’re very attuned to your own intuition and your own feelings even if they hurt.

So I approach it much more from a songwriter’s perspective. But I do know how to pull myself out now, from that constant, never-ending, bottomless rabbithole of self-doubt and fear. I’ve been able to write songs and feel better. They clarify and simplify the emotions that you’re feeling. Nothing you do is going to make the pain stop. It just helps to have it clarified and simplified.

Is there someone you look to as a model of where you’d like your career to go? Are there women you look up to?

We’re taught to find examples for the way we want our lives to wind up. But I can’t find anyone, really, who’s had the same career trajectory as mine. So when I’m in an optimistic place I hope that my life won’t match anyone else’s life trajectory, either, going forward. I do have female role models in the sense of actresses like Mariska Hargitay. I think she has a beautiful life, and an incredible career, and I think she’s built that for herself. She’s one of the highest paid actresses—actors in general, women or men—on television, and she’s been playing this very strong female character for, what, 15 years now, something like that. And Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. I really love her business, and how she sticks to who she is, and how people relate to it. In other industries, I have female role models. I just struggle to find a woman in music who hasn’t been completely picked apart by the media, or scrutinized and criticized for aging, or criticized for fighting aging—it just seems to be much more difficult to be a woman in music and to grow older. I just really hope that I will choose to do it as gracefully as possible.

Is it a struggle, being a role model for so many young women while trying to produce something artistically valid?

I don’t find a struggle with that balance, being looked at as a role model, because I think it’s a very obvious and natural thing for people to see you as, when you’re a singer. I’ve always felt very comfortable with it, for some reason. That in particular hasn’t been one of my struggles. I’ve struggled with a lot of things, but the idea that you’re living your life and it’s impacting other people, some of whom are very young, some of whom are in their most impressionable times and they’re discovering the music that tells them how they are going to live their lives and how they should feel and how it’s acceptable to feel, I think that that’s kind of exciting.

But it’s the same thing as living your life based on what your grandkids will say one day. I’m sure there will be things that my grandkids make fun of me for no matter what, but I’d really rather it be, “Look how awkward your dancing was in the ‘Shake It Off’ video! You look so weird, Grandma!” rather than “Grandma, is that your nipple?” I don’t make it as much about the millions of people who would be disappointed if I were to have some sort of meltdown or scandal or something that made everyone feel like my character wasn’t what they thought it was. I think more about the people in my life that would disappoint: my mom, my dad, my kids, if I ever have them. And that way it’s not as much pressure as thinking about the millions of little minds that you must be shaping. I’m trying to live my life with some sort of thoughtfulness put into my actions, but it’s not because I feel like I’m the president of the International Babysitters Club.

Does it annoy you when people say you don’t write your own songs, or that someone else is pulling the strings of your career?

I haven’t heard any of the people I respect in the music industry or in journalism, saying that they think I don’t write my own songs. I think, when I put out Speak Now, which was my third album, and I decided I was just going to write it entirely on my own, to me that was enough of a statement. I felt like I could move on from that. I felt like I had proved my point. That was when I felt free to collaborate with whoever I wanted, because if you actually listen to the music, you can tell that the lyrics are written by the same person. And it’s not a ghostwriter. It’s not some weird, you know—everyone’s got those weird Shakespeare theories that someone else did all his stuff for him. Not to ever compare yourself to Shakespeare. But people need to poke holes in things because of their own stuff. It’s not about me.

And we all know it’s a feminist issue. My friend Ed [Sheeran], no one questions whether he writes everything. In the beginning, I liked to think that we were all on the same playing field. And then it became pretty obvious to me that when you have people sort of questioning the validity of a female songwriter, or making it seem like it’s somehow unacceptable to write songs about your real emotions—that it somehow makes you irrational and overemotional—seeing that over the years changed my view. It’s a little discouraging that females have to work so much harder to prove that they do their own things. I see Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea having to prove that they write their own raps or their own lyrics, and it makes me sad, because they shouldn’t have to justify it.

As a female celebrity, having your body picked over, in a way that doesn’t happen for male celebrities—how do you deal?

I refuse to buy into these comparisons, because you don’t see it happening to men. All you seem to see is “Which New Mother Is Sexier?” “Who’s the Hotter Mama?” “Who’s Got The Better Booty?” If we continue to show young girls that they are being compared to other girls, we’re doing ourselves a huge disservice as a society. I surround myself with smart, beautiful, passionate, driven, ambitious women. Other women who are killing it should motivate you, thrill you, challenge you and inspire you rather than threaten you and make you feel like you’re immediately being compared to them. The only thing I compare myself to is me, two years ago, or me one year ago. How does 1989 measure up to Red, sales-wise? You just try to lead by example, and you hope, someday, that if we talk about feminism enough, maybe we’ll start to actually see it make a difference in the way young girls perceive themselves and each other.

Does it annoy you to have photographers everywhere you go? Are you at risk of becoming a shut-in?

Yeah, every outing is documented. So any outing I’ve been on, you’ve seen photos of. Any other time, I’m at home. Or I have my friends over and we cook dinner and talk and sit on the roof and laugh about things and gossip and whatever.

It’s honestly like, if I’m in the mood to be held accountable for every single article of clothing on my body, and whether it matches, and if it clashes, and if it’s on trend, then I go out. But if I’m not interested in undergoing that kind of debate and conversation—regarding how I’m walking, whether I look tired, how my makeup is right, what’s that mark on my knee, did you hurt yourself?—I just don’t go out. I try to evaluate whether I’m in the right emotional space to deal with that, and if I’m not, then I just stay in. And I’m perfectly happy staying in.

What do you have planned for the tour?

I know that with the way the fans have latched onto this album, the setlist will be predominantly songs from 1989. You know, when I go back and play songs I know they want to hear, like “Love Story” or “Trouble,” it’ll be interesting to reimagine them so that the fans get a new experience that feels in keeping with 1989. But I’m so excited. I have so many things I’ve been dreaming up for this.

If you look at the makeup of my previous music, as far as production elements go, there are a lot of live drums, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and live bass. And if you look at the landscape of 1989, it’s mostly synths and automated drums and these kind of big epic synth pad sounds, and key bass, and layered vocals. I have a very big band, there are, what, 14 of us, so what you’re going to end up with is more of a live feel in that it’s going to be filled in and more dramatic with more layers to it, but never to the point where it’s going to feel noisy or overcrowded. The music on this tour is going to live a little bit in that world, and thank God, my fans really seem to like that world.

The challenge with a stadium show is making those people in the very top row feel like they got an intimate, personal experience. On the Red tour we achieved that sense of intimacy by having acoustic moments, and moments where I was telling stories about these songs. I don’t like to scream at the audience, I like to talk to them.

I really like for there to be something theatrical about what we do on stage. When I was younger, I was just obsessed with Broadway shows. As much as I can show these audiences an element of that theatrical nature to a performance, I think that it allows them to escape from their lives a little bit more. So when you have a show like that it’s very difficult to change up the setlist every night. I keep the setlist pretty much intact, but we have little variables—I usually do different acoustic songs every night. In the past, I have brought out dozens of guest artists not to perform my songs but to perform their songs and I’ll take a verse. And those are the things that make me the happiest, because the reality of the situation is that most of the kids in the audience have YouTubed the entire concert before they got there. They know exactly what’s going to happen next unless I call up another artist and have a secret rehearsal soundcheck and surprise the crowd with something they genuinely weren’t expecting. I should be getting on that now, look into a booking agent for these things.

But it’s worth it because I really want them to have that genuine moment of surprise. It’s very rare in this day and age to surprise people, but I really like doing it.

Do you have a dream onstage guest?

I love Iggy Azalea, I love Haim. I’d say Vance Joy, but he’s opening up the tour, so he’ll be there anyway. The things that I try to really focus on when bringing out people as surprise guests is what do my fans really want to see, what would they lose their minds over? Not to show too many of my cards here—but I have probably 10 guests that I’m thinking about that would be amazing. But you know, these have to be artists that would get up there and play for the love of playing, because they’re not paid for being there, and they usually have to switch up their schedules. The people who have done it in the past—it’s been astonishing to me, because it’s been Nicki Minaj, and Usher, and T.I., these huge artists who could be anywhere else. And you can tell who loves playing live if they’re willing to come and play for free on one of my stadium shows.

Is there a singular moment from touring that sent your endorphin levels higher than they’d ever been before?

There are moments that happen live where you get to see humanity do what they’re going to do, and you can’t ever anticipate what they’re going to do. I played a stadium right outside of Boston a couple years ago. It was outdoor, perfect, clear weather forecast. And in the middle of the show, a torrential downpour starts. In my head, the first thing I’m thinking is, Everyone’s going to leave. We’re seven songs into this show, and they’re going to leave. I’m going to be playing to no one. And it’s going to look just like my nightmares look. But instead of leaving, they just danced. They all danced in the rain together, and I still, years later, have people come up to me in public, at some restaurant or wherever they run into me, and they’ll say, “I was at the show where it rained. I was at the Rain Show.” And I know exactly what they’re talking about, because we have these moments and these memories that bond us, like the time I looked out there and saw everyone dancing, when it was the complete opposite of what I thought they were going to do, and it’s those moments of human interaction that happen on tour that you can’t get just watching a song climb the charts, sitting in your house.

You recently moved to New York. Are you a Knicks fan now?

Yeah, totally.

You realize they’re not very good.

I love them, though. Why does that matter? So you run into a bunch of different, interesting types of people at the Met Ball. I’ve gone the last four years. And the most normal people at that event, every single time, are Amar’e Stoudemire and his wife Alexis. I talk with them and hang with them every time I’m there. So I’ve always had this sort of love of the Knicks, just because Amar’e is so cool. And also I performed at the Knicks’—at Madison Square Garden’s—Kids Talent Competition at halftime when I was 12 or 13. And ever since then I’ve had this kind of sparkly, magical opinion of Madison Square Garden and the Knicks, since they let me sing when I was a little kid.

Condensed and edited from separate interviews in September and November.

Read next:

TIME Music

Taylor Swift’s Spotify Paycheck Mystery

Photograph by Martin Schoeller for TIME

Spotify and the pop star's record label provide new figures to defend themselves in the battle over profits from the streaming-music service

Read TIME’s full interview with Taylor Swift.

Taylor Swift has been paid less than $500,000 in the past 12 months for domestic streaming of her songs, Scott Borchetta, the CEO of Taylor Swift’s record label, the independent Nashville-based Big Machine, told TIME Wednesday.

His statement is the latest salvo in an increasingly heated disagreement between Swift and Spotify. The disagreement has sent ripples through the music industry, with the country’s most successful musician removing her work from an admired new online music model.

According to Borchetta, the actual amount his label has received in return for domestic streams of Swift’s music—$496,044—is drastically smaller than the amount Spotify has suggested the artist receives. That sum represents only a portion of the amount paid out by the streaming service. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said Tuesday that the label for an artist of Swift’s popularity could expect to receive $6 million in the next year from the streaming service as the site’s audience grows. Borchetta said his label had made more from streaming Taylor Swift’s videos on the video site Vevo than it has from putting her music on Spotify.

A Spotify spokesperson told TIME that the total payout for Swift’s streaming over the past 12 months globally was $2 million.

MORE: Spotify CEO “really frustrated” with Taylor Swift

“The more we grow, the more we pay artists, and we’re growing like crazy,” said Jonathan Prince, Spotify’s global head of communications and public policy. “Our users, both free and paid, have grown by more than 50 percent in the last year, which means that the run rate for artists of every level of popularity keeps climbing. And Taylor just put out a great record, so her popularity has grown too. We paid Taylor’s label and publisher roughly half a million dollars in the month before she took her catalog down—without even having 1989 on our service—and that was only going to go up.”

On Nov. 3, Swift pulled her entire catalog from the streaming service, which claims over 50 million users, more than 10 million of whom have paid subscriptions. No artist today can match Swift’s popularity: her new album 1989 has sold nearly 1.7 million copies nationwide in its first two weeks on sale, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Swift and Borchetta both say that removing her music from Spotify is meant to make a larger point.

“The facts show that the music industry was much better off before Spotify hit these shores,” Borchetta said. “Don’t forget this is for the most successful artist in music today. What about the rest of the artists out there struggling to make a career? Over the last year, what Spotify has paid is the equivalent of less than 50,000 albums sold.”

At first, Spotify asked Swift to come back in a blog post. But after Borchetta said on a radio show on Nov. 7 that he had been hearing from other artists and managers who also want to leave Spotify—country star Jason Aldean just pulled his latest album from the service—Ek posted a broader defense of Spotify’s model. He claims Spotify has paid $2 billion to labels and publishers since its founding in 2008, and says the service, through its mix of paid and ad-supported subscriptions, is replacing revenue the music business had lost to piracy.

This isn’t the first time a major recording artist has tussled with Spotify. In October 2013, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke pulled his solo songs off the site to protest the size of its payouts.

–With reporting by Matt Vella

Read next: Taylor Swift on 1989, Spotify, Her Next Tour and Female Role Models

TIME celebrities

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, Is Halloween’s True Queen

Courtesy Hulu

It's "the best of all holidays," as the actress behind Elvira explains

One perk of America’s inexorable march toward total godlessness? Halloween is huge! A 2013 study suggested that the holiday generates near $7.6 billion in retail spending, with $2.8 billion of that going toward costumes. Perhaps no character says more about Halloween and commerce than Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, who rose from Los Angeles local TV in the early ’80s — hosting corny horror flicks while sprawled on a red velvet sofa, teasing the dateless lechers who had no choice but to spend their nights with her and Roger Corman — to become a one-woman branding machine, lending her name and unmistakable likeness to costumes, comics, video games and much more. (A personal favorite is the “Monsta Rap” novelty song.)

But Elvira’s iconic look (cribbed a little, to be sure, from Morticia Adams) wasn’t all that made her Halloween’s queen; viewers couldn’t help but love the character’s wit and double-entendres, served with a side of vocal fry. On TV today, high-low blends like hers exist perhaps only in Cartoon Network’s wee hours. But the internet happens to be another perk of America’s decadent damnation, and accordingly, Hulu has commissioned a new 13-night series (13 Nights of Elvira) to run through Halloween. Cassandra Peterson, the 63-year-old in the costume, chatted recently with TIME about Halloween, horror and hanging up her wig someday.

TIME: How is late October for you, generally?

Cassandra Peterson: My phone doesn’t stop ringing, and I don’t sleep, and I’m working during the day, and I’m working at night. It’s pretty hectic! I love it, I’m happy. But I sometimes wish all my work didn’t come in a one-month period.

You’ve got the Hulu series, and the live show…

And a lot more things in between! Oh, brother. I’m doing a big live extravaganza at Knott’s Berry Farm, the Halloween venue in Southern California. I’m out there singing and dancing and telling jokes to about 3,600 people a night. And I’m also back doing what I do best, hosting horror movies. It’s fantastic to finally do that again. I did do that in 2012, as a syndicated show. But good luck finding it—it was one of those, you’re looking up some channel number E-72-G-W at four in the morning. So I’m back where people can actually find me, on Hulu, hosting some movies I’ve never hosted before — which is hard to believe, because I thought I hosted every damn movie that ever existed.

How many do you think you’ve done?

Oh my God. Just on Movie Macabre, my original show, I did 272, I believe. And since then, oh my gosh, I’ve had at least a dozen home-video productions, so, I don’t know, upwards of 500 movies. Finding movies that haven’t been done by me is a miracle. And these are also the good bad movies that are perfect for me, movies like Puppetmasters, and Gingerdead Man.

Where did the character come from?

I got a part to host horror films on local TV in L.A., and I was told to come up with a look and a costume. An artist friend drew a picture. And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? There’s no way in hell they’re going to let me on TV in that.’ And they did! The general manager’s only comment was, ‘Can you make the slit on the leg a little higher?’

I went on, thinking, gosh, how will this last longer than a week? Because it’s ridiculous — I’m being this Valley Girl character that I developed in the Groundlings while dressed like a vampire. But, I figured, I’m making $300 a week, I shouldn’t complain. Obviously, they didn’t think it would run longer than a week, either, because they rented everything on the set, the candelabra, the sofa, and all of that. Funny story: They forgot to stop renting the couch. Seven years later they found out they’d paid, like, $25,000 in rental fees.

Do you really like Halloween that much? Were you into it growing up?

Oh, yeah. In life, there are no coincidences — I grew up with my family running a costume shop. Halloween was the biggest time of the year, and I was a Halloween-dressin’-up fool. I wore costumes when it wasn’t even Halloween, because I was a total geek. I had the best costume every year, because my mom and my aunt would dress me as whatever popular television character there was. Everybody else was wearing those cheap little plastic costumes from Sears. I won my first Halloween costume contest when I was in second grade — dressed in fishnets, high heels, and a can-can dress, dressed as Miss Kitty from the Gunsmoke series.

Plus, from about the age of seven on, I was a horror-movie freak. My cousin had taken me to see House on Haunted Hills, with Vincent Price, and I was both repulsed and intrigued. I couldn’t think of doing anything else but going to see the next cheesy Edgar Allan Poe ripoff movie by Roger Corman. And then I got into collecting horror magazines. My sisters were playing with Barbies; I was playing with Dracula.

No one who didn’t have that background could do this job. I have to watch these movies over and over, and you really have to like them in order to endure that. There are a lot of stinkers out there. But I love them. To me, it’s comfort food, watching one of those movies. If I’m sick at home, I get a blankie, and I watch The Tomb of Ligeia. It just gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling.

How has Halloween changed since you started?

When I started out, it was a children’s holiday. As my career progressed — and I like to think that, possibly, I was a little bit of an influence — it became a more and more adult holiday. It’s a fantastic holiday — the best, best holiday of all holidays. There’s no religion involved, you don’t have to buy anyone any presents, you don’t have to have dinner with your relatives. It’s hedonistic. It’s about going out, having fun, and doing things that you wouldn’t ordinarily do — dressing up as a hooker or something.

Yeah. Is the sexy-costume thing your doing?

I really do have to pat myself on the back for that. I know sexy costumes are the biggest sellers. But you know the really sad, pathetic thing? I have a costume deal now with Rubie’s Costumes, and Rubie’s now says they’re going to make a sexy Elvira costume next year. I mean, what? Sexy Elvira? I said, ‘What’s wrong with this one?’ They said they wanted to make it shorter, more low-cut. It’s kind of sad to think that I was responsible for the sexy-costume trend, and now my own costume isn’t even sexy enough. ‘We have to get rid of that dumpy old frowzy Elvira. Get something sexy!’

What’s the craziest thing you’ve lent the Elvira name to?

I just released an Elvira sleep mask. Years ago, I did one of those smelly things that hangs in your car. I was like, ew, what does Elvira smell like? Luckily, it just smelled icky and overly perfumed — and they sold a bunch.

Has the internet done anything for your career?

In the beginning, I was really afraid that the internet would be the end of the horror host, because people weren’t watching TV, and things were so much more fast-paced. People’s attention spans are so much shorter. But I’m happy to say, that after a period of adjustment, it’s actually been a huge boon to me. I’m doing short videos, music videos — I have one out right now, for “Two Big Pumpkins,” my single that just came out from Third Man Records, written by Fred Schneider of the B-52s. I also have a huge virtual slot machine game. It’s called Elvira’s Big Chest … of Horrors. Sorry — this is all very subtle. People are able to see me more online. The pay is not there, but the awareness is definitely there, which is good for merchandise sales. I was really afraid of it, but now I love it!

What’s the Elvira business bringing in every year?

Oh god. I will tell you this: I just found out I’m making the same amount of money this year that I made at the very highest point of my career. And let me tell you, I’ve had some extremely down years. 10 years ago, after a messy divorce and a bad stock market, I was really— I wondered for a while if it was going to be the end of Elvira altogether. But I’m happy to say this year will be my biggest year since 1988, when I was starring in my own movie and doing a big publicity campaign for Pepsi.

What’s your wig situation like?

I go through these wigs like toilet paper. I have a zillion of ‘em. I need a whole storage unit for my wigs.

Do you ever think about calling it a career?

I say I’m going to quit every decade — heck, every day. I go, “I’m retiring when I’m 40,” “when I’m 50,” “when I’m 60.” But it just keeps moving up. I’m 63 now, and we’re already talking about next year’s shows. I’m like, “God, will this ever end?!” I’m happy doing it. But putting on the costume is getting a little more uncomfortable.

Yeah?

It’s always taken me exactly an hour and a half to get dressed up as Elvira, and it still takes me exactly an hour and a half. And, I’m happy to stay, I’ve stayed in an identical-sized dress my whole career — well, except for my waist, which never goes back to where it used to be, after you have a child. But that takes a lot of work. I can’t wait till retirement! I’ll balloon to 550 pounds.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

TIME Retirement

5 Things Every Millennial Should Know About Retirement

Save, get lucky or wait for the robots

In this week’s TIME, I, an employed barely 24-year-old with little to no reason for confidence about my future, stare down my sunset years, exploring the world of retirement today and envisioning what it might look like 40 years from now. But I’m told millennials dig lists. So here’s what I learned.

Read the full story in this week’s magazine.

1. Every little bit of savings counts. It helps to build a nest egg. A 2010 study from the Center for Retirement Research says 53 percent of American households are at risk of losing their standard of living upon retirement; in 1989 only 30 percent of households faced such a predicament. Alexa von Tobel, the CEO of Learnvest, a firm which offers financial-planning services to the masses says you should get insurance and keep your debt down. Max out your 401(k) match, if your employer offers one, in your youth. Start an IRA. Cut out that extra coffee. It’s harder to save for retirement when you’re playing catch-up, and you never know what sort of harm could one day befoul you. She says, “Most of us work with our brains now. But how do you know you’re not going to have a brain injury, or something else happen? We just don’t know…We see all kinds of really great people that just didn’t know that something could happen.”

2. Choose your career wisely, then get lucky. And have an exit strategy. John Arnold, the energy trader turned philanthropist, managed to leave his job at 38, and with a spot on the Forbes 400 to boot. (He earned $1.5 billion at Centaurus Advisors in 2008; FORTUNE called him then “The Wunderkind Gas Trader.”) He does realize that not everyone could reasonably expect to follow his path. In his career he nonetheless found generally applicable lessons. “I fell into this job out of college, and my plan was to go to business school,” he says. But then he found that natural-gas trading was the perfect career for him. His math and problem-solving skills pushed him to the top of a cutthroat field. And then there was the money. “The one thing that money does—it allows you to follow your heart rather than do a particular job,” he says.

3. We should expect to be healthy long past the age of 65. Social Security sets the full retirement age for our generation at 67 (those born between 1938 and 1959 reach full retirement age somewhere in between 65 and 67). According to Centers for Disease Control data from 2010, though, the average 65 year-old American has 19.1 more years to live. (That’s up more than five years from 1950.) And we can expect 13.9 of those years to be healthy ones. Ursula Staudinger, the director of Columbia’s Butler Aging Center, says that the proportion of healthy years is expected to continue increasing, as the gospel of good health spreads and prescription drugs improve. All of this is to say that many of us will not need to drop out of the work force at 65 or 67 or even in our 70s, unless we want to. Living over the long-term without the structure and engagement of employment has even been shown possibly to diminish cognitive and physical health, Staudinger says. With that in mind, why don’t businesses try sabbaticals that would increase in frequency with age? What about formal hours-tapering programs? What about a government program that would engage us in civic activity when we’re elderly? I fear otherwise we’ll spend all our time on the PlayStation 37.

4. Retirement is a modern invention. The supposedly sacrosanct institution originated in Germany in the 1880s, when Kaiser Wilhelm I posited that the state ought to care for citizens who couldn’t work due to old age or disability. Germany soon established a social insurance system, and 50 years later, the United States had its own. But the conditions facing seniors during the Great Depression—the best statistics available show that about half of seniors lived in poverty, and generally in rural settings—and the conditions facing German workers in the first several decades of industrialization have next to nothing to do with the conditions in which most aspiring retirees toil today. There’s no reason we need to apportion our leisure time this way, except for that it’s tradition.

5. All of our retirement theorizing might be rendered moot by the advent of brain emulations. Robin Hanson, a futurist and economics professor at George Mason University, forecasts that at some point in the next century human-level robots will appear. Researchers, he predicts, will make cell-by-cell copies of the brains of the 100 most productive humans and implant them in robots. Then the emulations could do much of the work once assigned to humans. I can’t wait.

TIME Retirement

The Millennial Retirement Plan

Holly Andres—© 2013 Holly Andres

Staring down his sunset years, a 24-year-old goes in search of a happier, healthier ending for us all

Despite the blessings of youth–I’m 24 years old, with limber joints and without mortgage payments–I am aware that we have something of a retirement crisis on our hands.

You can’t miss it if you watch sports on TV, where financial-services firms pitch themselves to worried middle-aged men. I can’t miss it either when I call home. My parents are in fine shape, thank goodness, but like any other self-respecting late-50-something professionals, they are gaming out survival plans for so many improbable scenarios. And it didn’t take a lot of days on the job for me to notice that my employer was lowering its match on employees’ 401(k)s, leading to grumbling among some of my older co-workers, who saw their defined-benefit pension plans end in 2010.

The boomers, we’re told, might be going bust. But what–if I may be so millennial–about me? Sixty percent of American millennials, the approximately 85 million of us born from 1980 to 1999, expect to retire at age 65 or earlier, according to a recent survey from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Yet we came of age in an economic climate worse than any since the Great Depression, impossibly far from the postwar prosperity that greased our grandparents into the workforce. That alone seems to limit the chances of retirement’s having a future at all like its present.

More than that, we fancy ourselves a new breed. We think freely. We never unplug. We invented Pinterest. So even if we did have the financial wherewithal to retire in 40 years, should we want to? Are decades spent away from the office good for our bodies and brains? Does it make us happier to officially transition to a new phase so late in life? Perhaps retirement, this august institution that came of age in the era of World War II, has reached its own retirement date. I decided to find out.

Preparing for Retirement

My first call goes to Alexa Von Tobel, the CEO of LearnVest, a firm that bills itself as a financial planner for average Americans. LearnVest aims to make wealth care, as von Tobel puts it, as accessible as health care, with financial-planning packages priced in the mid-hundreds. Though the business won’t disclose its client numbers, LearnVest has raised more than $70 million in venture funding. Von Tobel has been on the cover of Forbes and on the cover of her own book, Financially Fearless. The one caveat about her retirement expertise? She’s 31. But considering she was twice admitted to Harvard (she earned her B.A. in 2006 and left business school in 2008 to start LearnVest), while I was twice rejected from Harvard, I thought myself in no position to judge.

Von Tobel invited me this summer to LearnVest’s New York City offices, on two sunny floors a few blocks from Union Square. Even sunnier than the space is von Tobel herself, energetic and quick to launch into a speech confirming the nation’s collective retirement peril. “In my book, Financially Fearless,” she says, “I almost wrote a whole chapter on the history of why I believe we have a huge financial crisis looming.” She fears that the mixture of widespread access to credit and widespread financial illiteracy will doom the nation.

The numbers do cast a distinct pall. A 2010 study from the Center for Retirement Research says 53% of U.S. households are at risk of losing their standard of living when their earners retire; in 1989 only 30% of households faced such a predicament. And that number concerns only people over the age of 30. The long-term financial prospects for millennials are even gloomier: according to the Project on Student Debt, 7 in 10 college graduates from the class of 2012 carried debt, with an average per-debtor load of $29,400. They graduated into an economy seemingly hostile to young workers, with an unemployment rate for job seekers ages 20 to 24 that averaged 12.8% for the year 2013. The unemployment rate for those ages 25 to 54 was less than half that, at 6.3%. And young workers with jobs should not consider themselves especially lucky; studies show that recession-era graduates often deal with depressed wages for the first decade of their careers.

Though millennial workers began saving for retirement earlier–the Transamerica study says 22 is the median age at which my generation’s workers started saving, compared with 27 for Gen X and 35 for baby boomers–they’ve also been under more pressure. According to a recent Wells Fargo study, 47% of millennials spend more than half their monthly income paying off debt; 4 in 10 call themselves “overwhelmed” by debt. They’re saving to dispel future gloom, but they’re already in the thick of it.

Von Tobel says a change in perspective helps. To our sit-down, she brought along Stephany Kirkpatrick, the firm’s resident retirement expert. Kirkpatrick considers saving a matter of behavioral psychology. No one wants to save for retirement, she says, when it looks like a mountain in need of scaling. But when clients see the merits of incremental savings modeled over 30 years, they perk up. Kirkpatrick and von Tobel tell me I ought to sock away a little bit more in a Roth IRA. It could do so much for me, and the numbers do look good.

But, I protest, I’m young and employed. I’m supposed to spend money on frivolous things! Besides, I say, what little employability I have comes from my brain. I’m not going to break down in my mid-60s. Why would I ever need to retire?

Von Tobel looks at me, and her tone turns serious again. “How do you know you’re not going to have a brain injury or something else happen? We just don’t know. We’re in this line of business, so we see all kinds of really great people that just didn’t know that something could happen.” Nice brain ya got there, I silently translate. It would be a real shame if something happened to it.

So I guess I have no choice but to save: Save by investing in the stock market, save by abstaining from indulgence, save by any means necessary. In preparing for retirement, there is no magic, only savings and more savings. I leave my LearnVest consultation planning to act on von Tobel’s simplest tips. I sign up for a high-yield online savings account and a Roth IRA (down a cool 1.85% at press time) and vow to limit my credit-card debt, buy more insurance and plan my monthly budgets. But I also get to asking myself many questions about the savings gospel. The biggest one: What’s in it for us?

The Early Retiree

One muggy Friday morning in houston, I meet a very happy retiree a little more than two years removed from the working world. His name is John Arnold. The father of three is all of 40 years old, and with his boyish, sheepish grin, he looks younger. Per Forbes, he possesses a modest nest egg of $2.9 billion, putting him among the 200 richest Americans.

In May 2012, Arnold did what so many workers dream of one day doing. He had gotten tired of running his hedge fund and he had made enough money at it, so he quit. But in place of a gold watch and a dinner at the Elks Lodge, he earned headlines in the New York Times and Houston Chronicle. In 17 years, Arnold had reached the top of his cutthroat profession, reportedly returning more than 300% on investments in 2006, closing his fund with billions under management after opening it with $8 million and with 60 employees after starting with three.

The first 14 years of work he loved. Arnold, an economics and math major at Vanderbilt, started at Enron in 1995, just a few days after graduation. He says the job–a junior-trader gig that paid $35,000 a year plus a 15K bonus–suited his skills perfectly. His boffo returns in the go-go late ’90s at Enron facilitated a steady rise, and even the company’s bankruptcy and criminal downfall (in which Arnold was not implicated) barely stalled him. Then came the big returns and the big days for Centaurus Advisors, the fund he launched in 2002. The job consumed him, but he liked it. He was working straight from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., waking many mornings having dreamed about what he traded–natural gas.

By 2009 he began to question his passion as natural gas prices slumped. In 2011 he knew he wanted out. He figured his moneymaking opportunities were gone, his best days behind him. So he closed the fund just shy of its 10th anniversary. He took a summer vacation in Colorado and then got into philanthropy, which is what he spends the bulk of his time on now.

For a self-made man with such a spectacular mike drop to his credit, Arnold has little to share in the way of business maxims. His advice is simple enough: Find a career that suits you well, and try to make a lot of money at it. Then have an exit strategy concerning a passion of yours. His was public policy. “The one thing that money does–it allows you to follow your heart rather than do a particular job,” he says.

And in his retirement, one of Arnold’s primary causes is the reform of defined-benefit public-employee pensions. He wants rules mandating timelier funding for them and thinks it might be wisest for the defined-benefit plan to disappear altogether. (This change has long since been under way in the private sector, where defined-benefit pensions covered 35% of the workforce in 1990 but only 18% of it by 2011.) Since the 2008 financial crisis, six states have introduced plans with a mandatory defined-contribution component.

The story that pension politics and the expected exhaustion of Social Security’s trust fund in 2033 tells is the same one von Tobel told me: we millennials will be on our own in retirement.

Ready-Made Suburbia

Retirement, as an institution, traces its founding to 1889, when Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, promised Germans over 70 that the state would provide them with income. It wasn’t until the 1935 signing of the Social Security Act, which endeavored to lift the elderly from poverty, that America’s retirement culture began to take shape. But it took postwar prosperity and the attendant improvement in seniors’ quality of life to vault retirement up to what it is now for the fortunate many, a round-the-clock actualization of a Jimmy Buffett song.

Retirement is, after all, sold to us from both sides: it’s not only the financial-services firms’ looming horror but also the real estate developers’ well-deserved, leisure-filled reward–the shimmering twilight years spent frivolously but guiltlessly before dotage arrives. Retirees defect, free of puritan compunction, from the Northern and Midwestern metropolises that gave them grueling if remunerative careers and head to warm climes with little industry to speak of other than condominium construction and physical therapy.

Maybe this lifestyle ought to come to an end. In search of answers, I give the Pulte Group a call. Pulte, one of America’s largest homebuilders, offers homes for prosperous active adults ages 55 and over, known as the Del Webb line. This is a name with some history. TIME put construction tycoon Del E. Webb on its cover in August 1962, heralding the rise of The retirement city: A new way of life for the old. Three years earlier, Webb had started selling houses at his Sun City development in Arizona, where in 1954 the first age-restricted residential community had cropped up. (Punning developers named it Youngtown.)

Today, even though Webb himself is 40 years deceased, about 50 still-selling 55-and-older communities bear his name. Securing my piece of these developments, or whatever their 2055 equivalent may be, is just what my new friends at LearnVest have me saving for. I had to explore. That’s how I find myself sitting shotgun in a double-length golf cart, touring Sun City Carolina Lakes, a newish development 30 minutes south of Charlotte, N.C. (Base prices start at more than $200,000, out of the range of many seniors and most assuredly out of mine.) Pam, a resident who gives tours, is behind the wheel, with Shannon, a sales VP, in back.

As we roll over the roads, statistics keep coming: 11 lakes on the property (two stocked for fishing–catch and release), eight softball teams (the primary source of business for local orthopedists, one resident jokes), four seasons (more than Florida has!), $50,000 (the state’s discount on the fair market value, for tax purposes, of homes with residents over 65). All of it, especially the last part, seems well suited for convincing stickler-y seniors.

But the social climate, more than the grounds, is what draws seniors to Sun City. In conversations with so many residents, the phrase like-minded people pops up. In exchange for surrendering lifelong friendships, the kind forged by happy accident in heterogeneous communities, seniors often seek out places where the residents act the same as them and do the same things they do. (Imagine picking a college, if college had no classes and lasted 20 years.) So the people here are mostly retired professionals, mostly friendly, mostly from the East Coast, mostly active, mostly with pensions and grandkids, mostly conservative, nearly all white.

At an afternoon cocktail hour at the home of Melissa and Rich, who came here from Columbus, Ohio, the talk is of richer lives and newfound passions. It’s important, Melissa tells me, to feel like you’re doing something meaningful after you’ve moved on from your old job and community and into a place full of people your own age. She used to be a teacher; now she works as a life coach and pursues creative arts. Barb and Joe, another couple, moved there from Erie, Pa. Joe left his government job early; Barb was reluctant to leave hers. But a friend gave her a copy of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, and she soon realized she had to leave town to grow. Joe says they know more people here than they did in Erie, where they lived for 60 years. Barb misses her friends. They keep in touch through Facebook.

The Sun City residents tell me that they cannot picture my generation wanting to retire there; apparently we don’t care for outdoor recreation. True enough. (Investment idea: Find a fixer-upper sanatorium next to an Apple Store.)

But it’s not just their immersion in screens that may scare millennials away from retirement communities. We’re also averse, I figure, to the homogeneous, ready-made suburbias the master builders have long sold. Instead, despite the prices, my generation has headed for cramped housing in diverse, historic cities. And we have done so largely in search of culture, which is hard to find at Sun City, even with Charlotte just a 30-minute drive away. Other communities have sprung up to corner the culture market–some universities have offered alumni the chance to retire on campus-adjacent developments–but that goes only so far. I can hardly fathom enjoying a life in which I interact only with people my own age, people largely just like me, with all the same cultural points of reference. Besides, I can get that free on Twitter.

Time to Save

I wanted, though, to square my assumptions with at least one senior. So I went to see the U.S.’s ranking consumer-advocate curmudgeon. “A healthy society,” Ralph Nader says, “provides opportunities across the board that send a message to the elderly: ‘We need you, we want you.’ ” Residential communities “put seniors out to pasture.”

Don’t even think about asking him about his own potential retirement date. Nader, 80, is no longer a frequent presidential candidate–his last campaign was in 2008, when he captured more than 700,000 votes–but he says he’s working harder than ever. He reads, writes, talks, advises, demonstrates, cajoles. Whatever it takes. He’s made just a few concessions to time, he says, cutting pastries out of his diet and surrendering his hopes for an uninterrupted night of sleep. Otherwise he’s the same Nader he was when he appeared on Time’s cover in 1969; he is still brimming with the blend of scorn and optimism that made him a civic leader. He still forgoes a computer in favor of his Underwood typewriter.

Nader laments the generational gap brought on by technology and, indeed, the whole retirement industry. “Take China. There’s no retirement. But older people, they’re revered for their wisdom and experience and willingness to help the young. Well, here, if you don’t know how to use an iPad,” he tells me, “you don’t have anything left for people your age.” Seniors feel lonely, burdensome, terrified of even the slightest hint of Alzheimer’s. And marketers, Nader says, prey on that anxiety. Seniors lose, and so does everyone else.

After my afternoon with Nader, I kick some of these matters to academic experts. Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, predicts that the weakened American family structure will take a particular toll on retirees in the next few decades. Adult children usually serve as seniors’ most important caregivers, but fathers who are absent during their children’s formative years will struggle to enlist them later. (More than 8 million of the 33.2 million U.S. households with children under 18 are headed by unmarried women.) Yet there is some small reason for hope, from an unlikely source. According to Cherlin, the Great Recession has brought some families together, with adult children living with their parents out of necessity. Perhaps this closeness will persist into boom times.

Ursula Staudinger, the director of the Butler Aging Center at Columbia University, says the healthiest seniors are the ones who keep working. While short-term breaks from the structure and demands of a job can improve the mind, medium- and long-term absences often lead to downturns in mental and physical health, research suggests.

The average 65-year-old, ready to collect his first Social Security check, has 20 years to live, most of them rather healthy. And scientists expect the proportion of healthy years to increase. Retirement as we have long known it wastes the healthy minds of good people. A solution, Staudinger says, might be for large American employers to allow their middle-aged workers to take sabbaticals and gradually reduce their hours as they age, as some European firms have done. But we need an attitude change first.

Retirement, I’ve learned, isn’t so much an essential social institution as it is a fun-house mirror for the old generation. In middle age, we’re all more or less the same. Everybody works, and everybody’s unhappy. But when age 65 rolls around, our differences get magnified.

In retirement, those who had good jobs can play tennis all day and work part-time: consulting, advising, expert-witnessing. But those who did manual labor without the protection of a pension plan will have sore backs and need full schedules, hoping for scraps of service labor to be thrown their way.

Trends be damned, millennials should expect fairer and better–not a blessing to drop out of society and ignore its problems. Maybe it would serve us well to give up on our mythologized retirements.

Sure, I’ll save a little more cash just in case, and I’ll tell my friends to do the same. But I’m dreaming of starting a movement. My brain feels better than ever. I can keep it that way into my 80s or 90s, I bet, if I play the right games on my iPhone. With fresh eyes and a sharp mind and a renewed sense of purpose, I look forward to spending 60-some more years as I spent this one, writing for weekly magazines.

TIME

Bill Simmons Is No Freedom Fighter

Bill Simmons - KIA NBA Countdown - January 30, 2013
Bill Simmons on the set of NBA Countdown in New Orleans on Jan. 30, 2013. Don Juan Moore—AP

Jack Dickey is a reporter for TIME focused on culture and sports. He is also a contributor to Sports Illustrated.

No sports pundit has held as much sway of his bosses since Howard Cosell. That power makes the ESPN star an awkward leader of a movement trying to hold the media giant to account

Whenever we’d take chemistry tests in high school, the instructor would always take care to note whether the hypothetical reaction was taking place in a closed system. In a closed system, the products and reactants exist among themselves—nothing from the outside has any bearing on the reaction.

And so it always is, even when it appears otherwise, with Bill Simmons and his ESPN bosses.

News of ESPN’s three-week suspension of Simmons sent Twitter into a tizzy Wednesday night, with the #freesimmons hashtag so heavily posted as to signal the start of a movement, such as it is. (C’mon, Lena Dunham joined in!) Simmons had earned the suspension, ESPN said, for failing to “be accountable to ESPN … and operate within ESPN’s journalistic standards.” Namely, he had criticized NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the Monday episode of his popular podcast, The B.S. Report.

His criticism: “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–king bullsh-t.” And then Simmons challenged his bosses to go after him. And then they did. (Through a publicist, Simmons declined to comment for this story.)

While Simmons has a thick personnel file in Bristol—he was suspended from Twitter in 2009, and again in 2013, for sniping at the network’s properties, and he had public beef with his editors about his column in 2008—this case seemed to many to signal something different. ESPN is one of the NFL’s major broadcast partners, and, coincidentally, the Goodell firestorm started with a suspension too.

Yet Simmons makes an imperfect freedom fighter. There were three parts to what he said: There was the substance of the accusation against Goodell, there was its coarseness, and there was the threat to go public if ESPN pressured him. (He said, “I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. Because if one person says that to me, I’m going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner’s a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast.”) The latter two must have dwarfed the first in significance within the network’s culture of coordinated collegiality. A tempered accusation would have offered a tighter test case—especially given that only ESPN’s most credulous blowhards seem presently inclined to trust Goodell. (Here’s where my editor makes me point out that I am a contributor to Sports Illustrated, which competes with ESPN in all kinds of ways.)

It’s a little surprising, though only a little, that Simmons hasn’t left his corporate-antagonist shtick behind. In recent years, ESPN has elevated him from a (terribly popular) web columnist to the editor in chief of an occasionally fantastic web magazine that employs nearly 30 people (Grantland), the executive producer of a strong series of documentary films (30 for 30) and a talking head on its NBA coverage. He’ll even be getting his own show this year. He led the effort to bring Nate Silver aboard (even Simmons’ father pitched in), and he is said to earn several million dollars a year. It’s hard to think any sports pundit has held so much sway over his bosses since the days of Howard Cosell. (Even Cosell, a onetime major in the Army, never had so many people working under him.) And one might expect Simmons to be even gentler with his bosses in light of his rise since, as Will Leitch wrote Thursday, ESPN doesn’t even need to be in the Bill Simmons business. Its website could be a still photo of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, and its NBA pregame show could be a loop of Rednex’s “Cotton Eye Joe” video, and Disney’s accountants would barely notice the revenue dip.

That’s part of the reason Simmons built his site in-house and encouraged Nate Silver to build his the same way. As Simmons told me earlier this year when I wrote about Silver, “The good thing about ESPN is that it’s a really smart company making a lot of money,” which was to say that ESPN’s smaller businesses face little pressure to turn a profit.

After all, ESPN makes the vast majority of its money not from web advertising or the DVD sales of its documentary series but from cable subscriber fees. And the programming that makes the network essential to cable companies isn’t College GameDay or Monday Night Countdown or the new Grantland NBA series; it’s the big DVR-proof games that follow those, exclusively on ESPN’s signal. And doesn’t that make their college-sports, NFL and NBA reporters irreparably compromised? You bet!

Which brings us back to Simmons, and the closed system. As Jeb Lund memorably put it in 2011 upon Grantland’s launch, “ESPN and Simmons exist to make each other look edgy.” Simmons gets to menace the suits and see where he stands, and ESPN gets to look like a shop that has the standing to enforce something it calls journalistic standards. It’s a stunt, which concerns the general public only inasmuch as it makes people curious about the promise of independent media. And maybe, just maybe, it has.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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