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
One leading columnist and television personality at the network said to me, “Generally, ESPN’s business interests will always be at odds with its journalism. It is not a journalism company. It’s an entertainment company. This is the age of journalism we live in, not just at ESPN but everywhere. Journalism is increasingly more corporate. When you get in bed with the devil, sooner or later you start growing your own horns.”
In theory, there is supposed to be a wall at ESPN between the business side and the journalism side. But, like many walls across the earth, it tends to exist to separate the powerful from the powerless. One former employee said to me, “The ESPN wall is about as effective as the Great Wall of China. It can look impressive but there are plenty of ways around it and lots of holes. It’s an idea but like many ideas it doesn’t work in practice.”
A current ESPN journalist said to me, “I don’t think those on the business side are bad people. But what you have are people with utterly opposed jobs. Their job is to keep the broadcast partners happy. Our job is to investigate them. That theoretically could produce a creative tension but the power imbalance is ridiculous. It’s like they’re Mike Tyson and we’re Evander’s ear.”
This latest event however, according to one veteran at the network, has exposed a more disturbing division than the acknowledged one between the journalists and the numbers crunchers.
“People talk about the divide between the journalism side and the business side, but this has revealed just how bifurcated even the journalism side has become,” said one journalist at the network. “Many here who are supposed to be on that side don’t care because they’re not really journalists. It’s not their fault. They’re producers. They’re television personalities. They’re entertainers. In a month they’ll stop caring [about the decision to pull out of “League of Denial”] if they even care now.”
The news of ESPN’s withdrawal from the Frontline project also comes after the announcement of something that will undoubtedly do far more long-term harm to the cause of sports journalism: the move to time-slot purgatory of the indispensable news program Outside the Lines, with Bob Ley. Outside the Lines, which is the platinum standard of televised sports journalism, had done numerous reports about the NFL and concussions. Now it has been moved on the schedule to make way for even more NFL-related programming.
One top journalist described it to me as follows. “Our corporate strategy right now is to go all-in on football no matter the cost [to journalistic integrity]. We are going all-in on football at a time when you have damn near 5,000 people suing the sports that made them famous [for head trauma]. You have empirical evidence that something is going on with this game that is really dangerous. We are now carrying water for a game that is on a deeply problematic trajectory. We are going all in on this sport and this sport is in peril.”
A long-time critic of ESPN, Deadspin founder and New York magazine contributing editor Will Leitch, believes that this is exposing a reality at ESPN that most assume exists but has rarely broken out in such public fashion. “It must be an incredibly painful reminder to the best journalists that do work there that they could be sold out any second,” he said to me. “It must feel like all of their worst fears coming true…. I think most viewers who love the best writing and the best journalism that comes out of ESPN understand that if we are going to have Grantland, Don Van Natta, and Bob Ley, they are going to be subsidized by Skip Bayless, First Take and the other idiocy they broadcast. But this situation makes it look so much worse than that for all to see. It makes it look to the public like the journalism just acts as a front for the business.”
Many also expressed confusion. “The biggest question I have is: If the reason ESPN terminated the relationship was to placate the NFL, why even agree to collaborate with PBS at all? I guess I just wonder if it’s more to it than what is known. The NFL has been aware of ESPN’s pursuit of the concussion issue for months. Why would they raise a stink now?”
Another person theorized that everyone, including the Miller, Belson and The New York Times are reading the entire story backward. “The only thing that makes sense is that this was The Mouse. This was Disney [parent company of ESPN]. ESPN is the heart of Disney’s profitability and the NFL is the heart of that. I think Disney told the NFL to tell [ESPN president John] Skipper to cut it out. Then their paws are clean… But that could be wrong. I don’t know. I need a drink. And yes, you can include that.”
It’s worth noting that after I heard this, Robert Lipsyte, the esteemed ombudsman at ESPN, wrote that his “sources indicated [Skipper] had discussed [ending] the ‘Frontline’ partnership with Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger, as well as lawyers at both Disney and ESPN.” Lipsyte then reported that Skipper “confirmed that was true.” Skipper then said to Lipsyte, “I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming.” It’s difficult to see, in this situation where the “balance” part comes into play.
One very well-known television figure at the network with whom I spoke sees the brand as battered but not destroyed. “This company understands that the scrutiny of our journalism is now going to be more intense than ever. The vaunted wall that divides the journalism from the moneymakers has been badly damaged. Soon I’m sure you’ll see some trumpeted high profile journalism [from us] or some splashy new hires and that will be us buying some mortar and bricks to publicly repair ‘the wall’. But we all understand our credibility has been damaged.”
Not everyone is so hopeful. One ESPN journalist, who has a sterling reporter’s pedigree said to me, “The only way journalism works is to be on time all the time. Otherwise people will think you have an agenda and won’t trust you. You do this shit…and people don’t trust you. And do you know what? People don’t trust us in the first place…. They always fall back on saying that they never spike stories. And that’s true. For me, they’ve never spiked one of my stories. But do you know what? You live here long enough, you self-censor. You self-spike a story. You don’t even have to go through the trauma of getting it vetoed because you know what will pass and what will not.”
A former ESPN reporter who has been doing work on concussions for years said to me, “On the bright side, ‘It brings more attention to the documentary and now it has the gloss of ‘This is the documentary that the NFL and ESPN don’t want you to see.’ So that’s something.”
But efforts to look at the bright side cannot hide a mood that only varied modestly from stunned to morose. As Lipsyte wrote, “At worst, a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege. The best isn’t very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel.”
Will Leitch put it far more simply. “On the one hand I feel bad for those guys. On the other hand… Hey, you work for ESPN.”