NFL Hall-of-Famer Harry Carson speaks during the session on PBS’s upcoming Frontline documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles. ESPN says it’s ending its collaboration with public TV in an investigation of the NFL and players’ head injuries. (AP Photo/PBS, Courtesy Rahoul Ghose)
ESPN is the New York Yankees of sports journalism and, as with the Yankees, whether you love them or hate them, they have become a central axis upon which much of the sports world spins. That’s why an industry-wide earthquake was felt last week when The New York Times reported that the World Wide Leader in Sports had abruptly pulled out of a fifteen-month partnership with PBS’s Frontline to produce a documentary about head injuries in the National Football League.
According to Times writers James Andrew Miller and Ken Belson, ESPN withdrew from this unique investigative project, titled League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth, because of pressure from their most profitable broadcast partner, the almighty NFL. As Miller and Belson reported, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sat down for lunch with John Skipper, ESPN’s president; John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production; and Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network, and cracked the whip. After their luncheon it was quickly announced that there would be no ESPN logos, branding, or promotion for “League of Denial.” This move comes despite the fact that two of their most high-profile journalists, brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, did the lion’s share of work on the project and will even have a book with the same title released in conjunction with the film.
Both the NFL and ESPN have subsequently denied that anyone was strong-armed. ESPN’s official comment was initially, “The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL. As we have in the past including as recently as Sunday, we will continue to cover the concussion story aggressively through our own reporting.” They have since further explained that the reason for pulling out was because they were taken off guard by their lack of editorial control over the final product.
I spoke to several of the biggest names in journalism at ESPN this weekend and their thoughts on ESPN’s official comments and reasoning for dropping out of the project ranged from “mystifying” to “deeply depressing” to “palpable bullshit.” No one I spoke to believes that ESPN looked up after fifteen months and discovered to their collective shock that they didn’t have final editorial control of the “League of Denial.”
None of the ESPN journalists with whom I spoke wanted to go on the record, with several describing such an action with the same phrase, “career suicide” but the fact that they wanted to talk at all tells a story of its own,. The collective picture they paint is one of a disheartened newsroom that feels disrespected, dismissed and demoralized