Many voices have had their say on what exactly happened to cause ESPN to back out of a 15 month parntership with the revered PBS program Frontline on the NFL and concussions. In spite of public and private claims that this was not a "Playmakers situation" the New York Times reported the league did indeed strongarm ESPN out of the collaboration.
Perhaps the most significant voice that needed to weigh in was ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, considering this centers around ESPN's journalistic integrity and trustworthiness as a news outlet. Before his tenure even started, Lipsyte commented that his focus would be on ESPN's conflict of interests between their news division and the rights division. Now he's been given perhaps the most glaring example of that conflict in ESPN's 30+ year history.
The entire piece is worth a read, but this paragraph is the central finding from Lipsyte and shows his search for the truth may be hidden from view:
So what just happened? Beats me. At best we've seen some clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence. At worst, a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege. The best isn't very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel.
This is a far cry from the coverage of the Poynter Institute during the Craig James saga – here Lipsyte questions the version of events given to him by John Skipper and raises the necessary questions of the relationship between ESPN's reporting interests and business interests. Truth be told, this is far from a black and white story and Lipsyte gets that.
Unfortunately, at this point it seems this is where the trail stops for now unless more reporting emerges about what exactly happened between the parties involved. Clearly both ESPN and the NFL want to forward the position that the NFL did not pressure ESPN to exit the documentary. It makes ESPN look weak, bowing down to the shield. And it makes the league look like they have something to hide.
ESPN President John Skipper is sticking to his version of events and Roger Goodell surely isn't going to speak on the matter. The odds of them divulging what really happened at that New York lunch are as long as Mark Sanchez winning NFL MVP this year. Both the NFL and ESPN have denied that the league pressured ESPN out of the PBS partnership. And they will continue to deny, deny, deny. Never has the "League of Denial" name ever been more appropriate.
But if there's a lasting legacy to this story it's this most damning backwards step for ESPN's journalistic integrity. It is the lasting perception that in spite of all of ESPN's crowing about their reporting and leadership as a news and reporting outlet, in spite of all of their progress on the journalistic front in the last year, it has caved to its most profitable partner when it matters most.
The network may want to point to their past, current, and future reporting on NFL concussions, but all of that work will not be able to overcome the perception that their work will only go as far as the NFL will let them. It will be the understanding that ESPN is not a news and entertainment outlet. They are a business first. An entertainment outlet second. And a news network only after that. For a company that wants to be taken seriously as a news outlet, and for the dedicated folks in ESPN's newsroom, it's a crippling blow.