ESPN has withdrawn its collaboration with PBS on the Frontline documentary League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis (Oct. 8), which investigates the NFL’s response to head injuries among football players.
Watch “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” preview on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.
At the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles earlier this month, PBS presented a panel on its Frontline documentary League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis (Oct. 8), which investigates the NFL’s response to head injuries among football players and was done in collaboration with ESPN’s Outside the Lines and based on the work of ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. ESPN has done significant reporting on the issue of concussions in football, but League of Denial appeared to me to be more of a direct indictment of the NFL than anything previously done on the network. Knowing ESPN’s relationship to the NFL as a major TV rights holder for Monday Night Football, not to mention the countless hours ESPN devotes to coverage of the league, a pretty clear conflict of interest exists. ESPN in the past has used the “our journalism is separate from other stuff on our network” argument when challenged on conflicts of interest (Bonds on Bonds, anyone?). ESPN is essentially biting the hand that feeds it, and I wondered how ESPN was internally reconciling with being an ally in a journalistic assault on a major business partner. So I asked ESPN senior coordinating producer Dwayne Bray on the panel:
QUESTION: The documentary says or somebody quoted in the documentary says you can’t go up against the NFL or you get squashed. How is ESPN going to go up against the NFL when they are a major rights holder and they basically have profited immensely from the culture of violence that is in the NFL?
DWAYNE BRAY: Well, we don’t see this as ESPN going up against the NFL. People can ‑‑ in their soundbites, they are allowed their opinion. 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. 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. And our journalism has been very strong on this issue and so strong that we partner with FRONTLINE. FRONTLINE is about as ‑‑ it’s the gold standard, I’ve said before, of long form investigative documentaries. ESPN is the gold standard for sports journalism from covering the games to investigative journalism. Nobody does it as comprehensively as we do it. 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 NFL is going to have to understand that.
The NFL wasn’t so understanding when it came to ESPN’s Playmakers fictional dramatic series, and I’m sure they were even less thrilled about League of Denial. While ESPN does do some fabulous investigative sports journalism, there are clear limits when it could potentially cause major damage to ESPN as a sports business marketer.
How is ESPN going to go up against the NFL when they are a major rights holder and they basically have profited immensely from the culture of violence that is in the NFL? Answer: It can’t, and it won’t, or it will get squashed.