Earlier this month, Dwayne Bray, a senior coordinating producer for ESPN, was asked by a reporter whether his network could cover the National Football League’s concussion crisis with integrity, given ESPN’s deep financial interests in the league’s health. Bray, who was appearing at the Television Critics Association press tour to promote League of Denial, a report on the National Football League’s concussion crisis, that ESPN was producing in collaboration with PBS’s acclaimed documentary series Frontline, insisted that ESPN had no conflict of interest.
“ESPN has been covering this subject for almost two decades,” he said, pointing to the collaboration with Frontline as proof of the network’s integrity. “Our journalism has been very strong on this issue, so strong that we partner with Frontline!”
Today, that defense is no longer available to Bray. Yesterday, Frontline announced that ESPN had pulled out of the project.
“From now on, at ESPN’s request, we will no longer use their logos and collaboration credit on these sites and on our upcoming film League of Denial, which investigates the NFL’s response to head injuries among football players,” wrote David Fanning, the executive producer of League of Denial, and Raney Aronson, a deputy executive producer on the project. “We don’t normally comment on investigative projects in progress, but we regret ESPN’s decision to end a collaboration that has spanned the last 15 months and is based on the work of ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, as well as Frontline’s own original journalism.”
And the potential reasons for ending that collaboration have wide-ranging implications for the independence of ESPN’s journalism. The New York Times reported Friday that NFL officials, including commissioner Roger Goodell, met with ESPN executives over lunch last week to discuss the network’s role in the documentary. “At the combative meeting, the people said, league officials conveyed their displeasure with the direction of the documentary,” the Times’ James Andrew Miller wrote. NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello said the league had no role in ESPN’s decision; ESPN, likewise, said the decision was a result of its lack of editorial control over the documentary, not about protecting its $1 billion relationship with the NFL.
But two of ESPN’s marquee journalists, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru Wada, are part of the team behind League of Denial. ESPN has had editorial input in the co-branded reporting that has preceded the documentary, with its editors working in close concert with those from PBS. Just last week, ESPN and PBS reported a dually-branded piece on the relationship between rheumatologist Elliot Pellman, who served as chairman of the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and the two entities have published various other reports about the league’s concussion practices (or lack thereof) over the last several months.
And while ESPN’s executives may not have direct editorial control over the film, it wasn’t going to be seeing it for the first time on October 8. According to the note from PBS producers Fanning and Aronson announcing the end of the partnership, PBS was “on schedule to share” the film, which it hasn’t finished editing, with ESPN “for their editorial input.”
The NFL denied that it pressured ESPN, which it called a “business partner” to end its partnership with PBS. “It is not true that we pressured ESPN to pull out of the film,” it said in a statement, according to Deadspin. “The lunch was requested several weeks ago by ESPN. We meet with our business partners on a regular basis and this was not unusual.”
ESPN also denied that the meeting with the NFL led to the end of the partnership. “The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL,” it said in a statement. “As we have in the past including as recently as Sunday, we will continue to cover the concussion story aggressively through our own reporting.”
“My first reaction is that I’m disappointed but not surprised,” George Atallah, the assistant director of external affairs at the NFL Players Association, told ThinkProgress. “Regardless of the reason for the decision that ESPN decided to distance themselves from the documentary, I think it’s sad. And the biggest disappointment is that the business interests have gotten in the way of journalistic integrity.”
Like the NFL, the NFLPA decided not to participate in League of Denial, because “we didn’t want this to turn into the NFLPA bashing the league,” Atallah said. “The facts are the facts are the facts.”
It wouldn’t be unprecedented for the NFL to pressure ESPN into nixing a product. In 2004, ESPN canceled a popular series, “Playmakers,” about a fictional professional football team. The series showed illicit drug and steroid use and delved into issues touching on both race and sexuality. The NFL publicly expressed its opposition to the series and ESPN canceled it after one season.
”It’s our opinion that we’re not in the business of antagonizing our partner, even though we’ve done it, and continued to carry it over the NFL’s objections,” ESPN executive vice president Mark Shapiro said when the series was canceled in 2004. “To bring it back would be rubbing it in our partner’s face.”
Playmakers was fiction, and the NFL’s semi-public big-footing of the series — Tagliabue went to ESPN’s parent company, Disney, to complain — had little real or perceived impact on ESPN’s journalistic integrity. In contrast, League of Denial comes at a time when 4,800 former players are suing the NFL over its concussion practices and as the NFL continues to deny links between football and long-term brain injuries in the face of both that litigation and new research into concussions and brain trauma.
“We don’t see this as ESPN going up against the NFL,” Bray said in Los Angeles on August 7. “We just see this as reporting the story. Again, we’ve been reporting the story for a very long time, and we’re going to continue to report the story.” But with the decision to pull out of League of Denial, ESPN has put Bray and all the talented journalists who work for the company in a terrible position of trying to figure out just how much of the story they’ll be able to report–and how separate ESPN’s business and journalistic interests really are.
This story was updated at 1:15 p.m. to add comments from the NFLPA.