Posted August 23, 2013

Report: Pressure from NFL led to ESPN’s disassociation from concussion project with PBS

Media, NFL safety
For the second time in a decade, the NFL isn't happy about ESPN-related programming. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

For the second time in a decade, there’s controversy regarding the NFL and programming that’s ESPN-related. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

Those involved in the production of the PBS show “Frontline” recently announced that ESPN had pulled out of a partnership established 15 months ago due to concerns over editorial control. The partnership was for one specific project — a two-part documentary on the NFL’s history of concussions, entitled “League of Denial.” The show is a companion to the book of the same title, written by ESPN’s Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada and due out on October.

In a release Thursday, PBS said that ESPN had distanced itself from the partnership by removing permission for use of its logo and any credit for the project. According to executive producers Raney Aronson-Rath and David Fanning, the reversal of course came as a complete surprise.

“We’ve enjoyed a productive partnership with ESPN’s investigative program, Outside the Lines, jointly publishing and co-branding several ground-breaking articles on our respective websites and on their broadcast,” the statement said in part. “We’ve been in sync on the goals of our reporting: to present the deepest accounting so far of the league’s handling of questions around the long-term impact of concussions. This editorial partnership was similar to our many other collaborations with news organizations over the years.”

But according to James Andrew Miller of the New York Times, ESPN’s decision to move away from the topic may have had its origins in a recent lunch meeting in New York with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Network president Steve Bornstein, ESPN president John Skipper and ESPN executive vice president for production John Wildhack.

According to two sources who spoke to Miller on the condition of anonymity, the league expressed its displeasure with the direction of the documentary. Until that time, Aronson-Rath told Miller, the two networks had worked well together to complete the show, with ESPN’s Vince Doria and Dwayne Bray taking the lead on that end. That changed in conversations on Aug. 16 and 19 when Doria and Bray told Aronson-Rath that ESPN had changed its mind.

“At no time did we formally or informally ask them to divorce themselves from the project,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Miller on Friday morning. “We know the movie was happening and the book was happening, and we respond to them as best we can. We deny that we pressured them.”

However, the NFL refused to cooperate with PBS in the making of the documentary. Goodell was not made available to the filmmakers, nor were any other league executives. The NFL told those doctors currently working with the league on its concussion protocol that they could choose whether or not to participate, but according to Aronson-Rath, three members of the league’s head, neck, and spine committee had agreed to be a part of the project before canceling their interviews.

The deciding incident appears to have been a Television Critics Association event in Beverly Hills on Aug. 6 when the trailer for the documentary was shown. At that time Bray spoke about how different the ESPN-PBS partnership was.

“I think one of the interesting things about ESPN is it’s sort of a bifurcated company. You do have the business partners on one side, but you also have the editorial production side.”

“So we made a conscious decision when we were presented with this opportunity to literally get in bed with ‘Frontline.’ We’ve had other nonprofits, universities that have asked us to partner with them. We’ve never done a partnership. And from the ‘Frontline’ standpoint, I think this is only the second time domestically that they’ve done a partnership with a broadcast partner. So we respect ‘Frontline’ greatly. They respect us. And the N.F.L. is going to have to understand that.”

If Miller’s report is true, however, it’s clear that the NFL did not understand at all. The league is currently involved in more than 4,000 lawsuits brought by former players and their families, claiming the league knew for decades about the long-term effects of head injuries but did not do enough to help those players in need. The NFL has said that it provided warnings to players based on the medical research available at the time.

ESPN currently pays over $1 billion per year for the rights to Monday Night Football, which is both a ratings and revenue triumph for the network.

In 2004, then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue expressed his severe concern to ESPN about the drama series “Playmakers,” which the league didn’t like because of its portrayal of a fictional professional team. ESPN pulled the show after one season as a result.

49 comments
skhrc521
skhrc521

I know this is kind of off the subject of the NFL and ESPN but does any one feel that there may have  been something else the Saints did to receive the harsh punishments they did for bounty gate.  I have often felt that Roger Goodell and the NFL had some other reason for all of this. 

Beacrosh
Beacrosh

The ESPN execs are simply bowing to Roger, so they don't lose their cash cow. However, there will not be NFL Football as we know it, I'd say oh, about 10 to 15 yrs. So make money off this while you can. The liberal democrats are on your A-- now.

horsley1953
horsley1953

There is a better question here: What the heck was PBS doing hooking up  with such an obvious conflict of interest in the first place? I though PBS was supposed to employ journalists.

chipdavis
chipdavis

The NFL is nothing more than a blood sport. I don't want my sons to play this game at any level. Head injuries don't go away, they don't heal. A person is changed forever by just one concussion. BAN the NFL. And Boxing. And MMA. IMHO

parkbrav
parkbrav

What bothers me about this story (and part of the A-Rod story) is how easy it is to convince the media to sit on (embargo) the news.  We, the consumers of the media, are not getting told half of what we need to be told to be consumers of these products, and yet we're expected to just go along with it.

parkbrav
parkbrav

Apparently this will still be shown on Frontline. WTF does PBS care?


And isn't the NFL still being sued on the concussions issue? I'm surprised that something like this documentary isn't part of the settlement discussions, if there are any.

Merv
Merv

You can't sleep with the most desirable woman in the world and then go tell everyone she farts in her sleep all night.  

Why is anyone surprised by this?

danielf.crawford
danielf.crawford

You can bet Mike and Mike won't be talking about this on the morning show. Did the NFL threaten to terminate the Monday Night Football contract?

Jimbo1117
Jimbo1117

While the NFL motivation is obvious, ESPN has become a sports monster. They have resorted to paying off high schools for coverage, then using that as a  way to make high schools change play dates to meet their timetable. High schools! They cover a game and they think they own the stadium and treat it and its workers, as well as other media as such. Now, they have a chance to put out an important story and they pull back for bucks. They are no longer the good guy in sports media.

DalePearl
DalePearl

Does anyone think that this will hurt the cash cow that is the NFL? Doubtful. Same with ESPN, they are the CNN of sports and that alone should make you realize that they are not a credible source.

DavidHarte
DavidHarte

Let's be very clear: Roger Goodell is an evil SOB.  Period.

UCSF is going to come out with a damning, definitive study in the next year or so linking football head injuries to various neurological degeneration: Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, dementia, etc.  And then what will Rog have to say?

Pathetic.  Evil.  And he keeps cashing checks.  Because that's what this game is all about.

likedoohan
likedoohan

It's not just ESPN. The entire sports media is in cahoots with their rainmaker. The Super Bowl ended on an obvious penalty, but every analyst said it was the right non-call. If holding had been called, they all would have agreed it was the right call. They are all actively promoting this "Heads up" concept, which is a complete joke. There is zero evidence it will do anything to reduce concussions, and it pains me to see kids, with their relatively big heads and weak necks, playing tackle football. The money involved is almost inconceivable, so don't expect any real journalism regarding concussions. How about you guys, SI "journalists"?

Fifilo
Fifilo

ESPN is the propaganda department of pro sports (this includes the NCAA).

ashoreinhawaii
ashoreinhawaii

ESPN, flush with cash, is still a Mickey Mouse operation.

MarcSchenker
MarcSchenker

Of course the owners of the NFL teams had the project killed. Of course they pressured ESPN to abandon it. Of course, the NFL has evolved into another corporate behemoth suppressing anything that it perceives threatens it. We all now take it for granted that money comes before human welfare, like everywhere else in the business wold. It's why their cut of the concessions will now increase with their absurd bag policy in the guise of security. You can see it on The NFL Network, the sports channel with the largest breasts and most incompetent commentators. You can see it at nfl.com, the corporate site representing the NFL that does articles on the most overrated players in the league. Bottom line? Like New Coke, the NFL makes millions because mismanagement, incompetence, paranoia and selfishness can't stop a great product. This is what American has become: the plutocracy with football teams.

eddie767
eddie767

If this info is true,i now hope the NFL loses the court case. Just because someone pays you,not the other way around,to broadcast your games you think you can tell them who to associate with. ESPN needs to grow a pair and remember is paying who. If they are afraid of Fox1,then just say it. I'll understand. NOT!!!

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

ESPN is a bunch of corrupt sellouts.  

I stopped paying attention to them when Mike & Mike went nuclear on the NBA coach whose player was getting singled out by the refs for things the refs weren't telling either the coach or the player. (It's been awhile.)

sporra01
sporra01

They threatened them with a move to FOX SPORTS 1. What else could get a monster like ESPN to piss in their booties.

DaveSorter
DaveSorter

NFL: Stop this project or we give your rights to FS1.
ESPN: We have a signed contract; we'll see you in court.
NFL: How does 16 weeks of Jags, Browns, Rams and Cardinals sound?
ESPN: Alice, get PBS on the phone.

Joe R2
Joe R2

This is nothing new.  Remember when the NFL pressured ESPN to stop airing that awesome show "Playmakers" about a decade ago?  Because they didn't want people to know about steroids and drug use in the NFL....

Joe R2
Joe R2

I can't decide who I despise more, ESPN or Roger Goodell....

PWINGS
PWINGS

At the point that ESPN or any other "news" entity accepts advertising money or other funding from a professional sport, they cease to be journalists. They are now marketers and they will have NO objectivity. This goes well beyond the concussion issue. The MLB owners' collusion scandal years ago, labor disputes and MLB ownership's complicity in the PED scandal are all stories that have either been buried or told in a completely biased manner to favor ownership. Caveat emptor - Let the viewer beware!

NoQNoSuperBowl
NoQNoSuperBowl

ESPN is the hand puppet of Goodell, Selig, Stern and Bettman. Money trumps telling the truth every time.

randomdeletion
randomdeletion

The next in the series on FRONTLINE is going to be about a troubling revelation:  "How the long term affects of living will one day lead to your death".  A shocking in depth analysis that can't be missed. 

randomdeletion
randomdeletion

Goodell certainly could have had a conversation with the ESPN execs where he did not directly nor indirectly tell ESPN to pull out of the project, but at the same time make it very clear they better.  For example:

Goodell:  "We are very concerned about the direction this documentary is taking.  We are equally concerned that a valued member of our business partnerships is involved in this effort.  We want to strongly express our concern in this matter.  We have been disappointed in the past with independent choices other business partners have made and we at times have had to sever relationships due to a lack of addressing our expressed concerns.  Of course we would be disappointed anytime our concerns are not met with serious consideration and if we are disappointed we would have to think long and hard about whether we can continue a strong valued business relationship with said partner."


Cool
Cool

You think Goodell was the one who made ESPN website have critics use their facebook id to make a comment?  Maybe he is out to get all his critics.. and of coarse ESPN has to give in, because with the threat of moving over to FOX sports 1, they just can't afford to lose the NFL.

MichaelWallis1
MichaelWallis1

It would be nice to see Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News take up on this matter of NFL concussions since it seems ESPN wants no part of it anymore.

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

Roger Goodell is becoming more of an embarrassment for football every day. RGZero told ESPN to back off, and back off they did. The concussion scandal, and just the entire attitude that NFL management has toward serious injury, will do the same for them that the PED scandal is doing to baseball. We all look at baseball as a farce because of PEDs (and that particular bomb hasn't even exploded under the NFL yet, but it will) and we will look at football as a farce as well if some integrity isn't shown. Goodell has proven he is unable to show it. They  proceed at their own risk.

muser
muser

What's ESPN? Are they still relevant?

DEJ1948
DEJ1948

Let's review.  The NFL and ESPN have a meeting and next thing you know, ESPN is no longer part of the FrontlineI partnership.  Just a coincidence?  Yeah, right.  I'll say one thing...I would give my left nut to have been under the table when this conversation took place.  Anyone who thinks the NFL didn't tell ESPN to cease and desist or else is playing with a short deck. This is nothing less than coercion, i.e. if you don't stop, the NFL will no longer affiliate itself with ESPN.  It's that simple.  Unfortunately, the league has that kind of clout. The powers that be at ESPN must have been jumping since lunch ended to make sure they're going high enough.  Wonder who picked up the check?  

donald5
donald5

@danielf.crawford You can't terminate the contract on those grounds.  Maybe if there was some sort of specific language in it but if that language was revealed, the press would have a field day and ESPN would lose the little credibility they have left.  If they did terminate the contract without cause, ESPN could sue the living bejeezus out of them.  You can threaten not to renew it in the future though.

parkbrav
parkbrav

@Jimbo1117 [ESPN] are no longer the good guy in sports media.

Right and look at the way they just Sh!tcanned ESPNConversations, forcing every commenter to Facebook

NebojsaTodorovic
NebojsaTodorovic

@eddie767 This happened 10 years ago when ESPN tried to enter the sports drama series genre with a show called Playmakers.  It was a great show, based on a professional football team in a pro league (Not unlike the NFL).


Ratings were high, show was good. and it just went dark without warning back in 2003.

OwG
OwG

@MichaelWallis1

ABC/ESPN sports is in a business partnership with the NFL. Of course they're not going to publish anything deeply critical of NFL policy. "Don't bite the hand that feeds" so to speak. Im not defending ESPN, but thats the reality.  

Its also why you dont see any investigative reporting deeply critical of NFL policy from "insiders" like Peter King or major outlets like SI or Fox, either. They risk being froze out if they do. PBS on the other hand, could care less of NFL freeze-outs. 

PWINGS
PWINGS

@Rickapolis Sports commissioners are intended to appear as impartial arbiters acting in the "best interests of the game and the fans". Actually, they have been shills hired by the owners to protect the owners' interests and screw the players and fans since the first commissioner, Kenesaw "Mountain" Landis of MLB. Among the current crop of commissioners, Goodell isn't the worst. That honor goes to Gary Bettman of the NHL. That's saying a lot given what jokes Goodell, Stern and Selig are.

BennDover
BennDover

@muser only if you want to see home run or slam dunk highlights, or talking heads making fools of themselves.  only people who enjoy it anymore are those with no attention span, as everything is sensationalized.

MichaelWallis1
MichaelWallis1

@muser yes they are! They are owned and operated by Walt Disney and are a multi-billion dollar corporation.

PWINGS
PWINGS

@OwG @MichaelWallis1 Actually, Peter King did make a few critical comments of the NFL's plans to expand the regular season to 18 games. Of course, someone has since explained to him the errors of his thinking and he has been silent on that issue of late. That's what friends are for, I guess.

AlainLapointe
AlainLapointe

Bettman is specially taking care of his jewish friends-owners

Azeron
Azeron

@Whatever @PWINGS @OwG @MichaelWallis1 The NFL hasn't dropped it.  They still want it.  They are merely biding their time.  If they don't get it i the next few years wait until the current collective bargaining agreement expires...they'll lock the players out again and win and have their way.

Whatever
Whatever

@PWINGS @OwG @MichaelWallis1 Wrong. Peter King has been silent about the 18 game schedule because the NFL has basically dropped it too. The NFLPA was so against it that it went nowhere, especially when the NFLPA started saying it would only accept an 18 game schedule if two preseason games were removed AND players got paid basically 10% more, plus rosters expanded. 

Owners did some quick math of salaries vs. gate receipts and essentially told Goodell to focus on London instead.