ESPN Exits Frontline’s NFL Concussion Project After Recent NFL Meeting
The New York Times investigates league TV partner ESPN’s’ sudden exit from Frontline’s NFL Concussion project, after intense pressure from league executives:
ESPN was involved with a hard-hitting television series that delivered an unsavory depiction of professional football players. The N.F.L.’s commissioner was so perturbed that he complained to the chief executive of the Walt Disney Company, ESPN’s parent company. Not long after, ESPN stopped promoting the show, then decided to end its run after one season.
The year was 2004, and the TV series was a fictional drama, “Playmakers,” which did not even include the words “National Football League.” Nearly a decade later, a strikingly similar set of circumstances — though this time with a more serious topic — has left ESPN, the multibillion dollar sports behemoth, again defending its dual existence as a sports platform and a news organization.
On Thursday, ESPN, which has spent heavily in recent years to build its investigative reporting team, abruptly ended its affiliation with “Frontline,” a public affairs television series that was weeks from showing a jointly produced two-part investigative project about the N.F.L.’s contentious handling of head injuries. The divorce came a week after the N.F.L. voiced its displeasure with the documentary at a lunch between league and ESPN executives, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation.
The meeting took place at Patroon, near the league’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, according to the two people, who requested anonymity because they were prohibited by their superiors from discussing the matter publicly. It was a table for four: Roger Goodell, commissioner of the N.F.L.; Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network; John Skipper, ESPN’s president; and John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production.
The meeting was combative, the people said, with league officials conveying their irritation with the direction of the documentary, which is expected to describe a narrative that has been captured in various news reports over the past decade: the league turning a blind eye to evidence that players were sustaining brain trauma on the field that could lead to profound, long-term cognitive disability.
The N.F.L. denied that it had exerted any sway over the project and said ESPN convened the lunch meeting, not the league. ESPN said it ended the partnership with “Frontline” because of misunderstandings about who had editorial control over the documentary, not because of its broadcast deal with the league.
But given the league’s immense popularity and the heated demand from broadcasters to acquire rights to its games, few direct requests would have had to have been made, sports media experts said. Leagues know that broadcasters like ESPN are both journalistic and entertainment entities, and they are adept at exploiting the divisions between them.
“This is a conflicted relationship because it’s a contractual relationship,” said Robert Boland, who teaches sports management at New York University. “The climate right now surrounding all sports and to some degree journalism is muddied because there is so much competition for content, so any dividing line between editorial and content is blurred.”
These kinds of skirmishes have been around for as long as companies have dabbled in both media and entertainment businesses. But the potential for conflicts are particularly acute at ESPN, which has tentacles throughout the sports world and whose mission is to cover sports that it actively promotes.
Executives in ESPN’s newsroom, which includes reporters, commentators and editors recruited from organizations like The New York Times, The Daily News and The Washington Post, are eager to trumpet their successes and editorial independence. ESPN has aggressively covered the recent scandal involving abusive behavior by the former men’s basketball coach at Rutgers; the doping case revolving around Biogenesis, the anti-aging clinic in Florida that provided banned substances to professional baseball players; and the issue of traumatic brain injuries in the N.F.L.
In a story by ESPN this month about Elliot Pellman, a longtime medical adviser to the N.F.L., a league spokesman accused ESPN of “being on a witch hunt.”
Executives in ESPN’s newsroom can get almost defensive about the company’s dual mandate, and several years ago the company created an ombudsman position to keep tabs on the news division. John Walsh, the executive vice president and executive editor at ESPN, said in an interview several months ago that it was an “insane proposition” that top journalists would join ESPN if their work would be compromised.