With the news of ESPN pulling out of their collaboration with PBS on the Frontline documentary covering NFL concussions, the major question has been asked – did the NFL pressure ESPN to back away? Was ESPN and OTL's work with Frontline putting Bristol's relationship in jeopardy?
Publicly and privately, people at ESPN had said no (including to AA last night). Publicly and privately individuals at ESPN had maintained the stance that this was not a Playmakers situation where the league used its power and influence over ESPN to stop their investigative journalism.
Now comes a bombshell report from best-selling author Jim Miller at the New York Times that those claims are not true and the NFL did force ESPN out of the documentary:
“Frontline,” the PBS public affairs series, and ESPN had been working for 15 months on a two-part documentary, to be televised in October. But ESPN’s role came under intense pressure by the league, the two people said, after a trailer for the documentary was released Aug. 6, the day that the project was discussed at a Television Critics Association event in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Last week, several high-ranking officials convened a lunch meeting 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; ESPN’s president, John Skipper; and John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production.
At the combative meeting, the people said, league officials conveyed their displeasure 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.
This certainly changes the narrative and is quite troubling. First, it's troubling from the fact that ESPN and the NFL both have denied this was a factor in Bristol's decision. That opens up an entirely new attitude of mistrust and skepticism of both parties. Secondly, as big and powerful as ESPN is it clearly is not as powerful as the NFL and this story paints the picture that John Skipper is more than happy to cede to Roger Goodell's authority. Finally, the fact that the NFL could get ESPN to halt doing serious journalistic work is jarring.
This is not Playmakers. This is not a scripted drama that really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. This is about the health of players and the alleged negligence of the NFL to seriously examine concussions. If the NFL can get ESPN to stop their collaboration with PBS on this matter, what's to stop them from preventing ESPN from doing other investigative work exposing the league? What's to stop the league from squashing any of its broadcast partners? The people who should be most concerned are the folks who care about investigative journalism working on these stories within ESPN now that their highest level executives have reportedly abandoned the concept.
Out of all the serious questions ESPN has faced in the last several years, this is without question the most damaging blow to their credibility as a news organization. At least PBS is brave enough to continue forward and not bow down to Roger Goodell.
UPDATE: ESPN has released an additional statement today.
"The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL. As we have in the past including as recently as Sunday, we will continue to cover the concussion story aggressively through our own reporting."