The trailer for the PBS Frontline documentary about concussions in the National Football League shows a series of bone-jarring hits set over a remixed version of Jay Z’s “Run This Town.” Midway through, it warns viewers to “Get ready to change the way you see the game” and features snippets of interviews with doctors and former players. It ends with a quote from neuropathologist Ann McKee, who wonders aloud “if every single player doesn’t have” brain injuries or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease that has been linked to high-profile suicides of former NFL players.
It’s that trailer for League of Denial, which debuted at a Television Critics Association gathering in Los Angeles earlier this month, that last week caused ESPN president John Skipper to rethink and ultimately end its partnership on the film with PBS, according to ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte:
Upon screening it, Skipper said he found the trailer to be “sensational.” He particularly objected to the tagline — “Get ready to change the way you see the game” — and to the final sound bite in the piece, from neuropathologist Ann McKee. Referring to brain injuries, she says, “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”
Skipper said he found that comment to be “over the top.”
Lipsyte’s column asks whether ESPN was sloppy, naive, or paying attention to business interests when it nixed the partnership with PBS. Lipsyte answers that question with, “Beats me,” and while we may never know the true answer, the circumstances he outlines make it seem that the billion-dollar business relationship with the NFL played a larger role than naivete or sloppiness.
ESPN’s stated reason for ending the collaboration is that it didn’t have editorial control over its content. Not setting editorial terms at the beginning of the game would have been a sloppy move for ESPN, one a “usually much more buttoned-up” network, to borrow Lipsyte’s words, wouldn’t normally make. But it also doesn’t seem totally true: ESPN has had editorial input on the co-branded print pieces it and PBS have published about concussions, and PBS was on schedule to send ESPN a copy of the film for “editorial input” once Frontline’s editorial process ended, according to the PBS statement announcing the end of the partnership.
As for naivete, it doesn’t add up either that ESPN didn’t understand who it was partnering with. Frontline has 15 Peabody awards to back the quality of its journalism and doesn’t pull punches in its films, not for ESPN or the NFL or anyone else. Thinking otherwise would certainly qualify Skipper and Bristol as naive, but it’s hard to fathom they were. Not with executives touting the partnership as evidence that ESPN could produce quality journalism even about the leagues, like the NFL, with which it has business relationships.
So what else was it but the business relationship? Eight days after PBS showed the trailer, Skipper met with NFL executives, including commissioner Roger Goodell. Both Lipsyte and the New York Times have reported that the documentary was discussed at the meeting, which the Times called “contentious.” Skipper’s words — “over the top” and “sensational” — could be used to describe a full slate of ESPN’s NFL coverage from the way it pumps up stories to the way it covers Tim Tebow to the way screaming heads fill shows like First Take. But all of that attention, sensational or not, is ultimately good for the NFL. This time, it isn’t, not with 4,800 players suing the league over concussions and no less than the future of the game at stake when it comes to how the NFL deals with the litigation and concussions in general. Coming from that angle, it’s quite easy to view the issues raised by League of Denial and the way they are presented in a minute-long trailer as quite a bit more “over the top” and “sensational” than coverage of where Tebow ate breakfast this morning.
ESPN has in the past provided consequential coverage of the concussion issue, and it will almost surely continue to do so in the future. “I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming,” Skipper said. That may be the case, and even if this is a business-related decision, it shouldn’t impugn the quality journalists ESPN employs. We’ll probably never know the full circumstances of ESPN’s departure from League of Denial, but when a network shells out more than a billion daollrs for broadcast rights and when broadcast rights become a major driver of profits, quality journalism can be the element of that balance that is unfortunately easy to sacrifice.