Award winning documentary League of Denial was groundbreaking work in bringing to like the seriousness of the NFL’s concussion crisis. It began as a collaboration between PBS and ESPN. However, before the film was to air on PBS Frontline, ESPN pulled out of the effort at the 11th hour. It was reported by the New York Times that the NFL pressured ESPN, its most lucrative network partner, to pull out of the film exposing the league’s willful ignorance in treating concussions.
Although that split is several months in the rearview mirror, the wounds of ESPN exiting their collaborative effort with PBS are still running deep. Earlier this week both outlets won Peabody Awards for their concussion reporting, ESPN through Outside the Lines and PBS through Frontline and League of Denial. When League of Denial producer Michael Kirk took the stage, he also took the opportunity to address what happened. Via Broadcasting & Cable:
The back story was recapped for the audience in brief by event host Ira Glass as the nets claimed their trophies one after the other. ESPN’s Dwayne Bray kept his remarks simple and praised colleagues, including vets John Walsh and Vince Doria, who “decided not to let sports be the toy department.” League producer Michael Kirk chose to address the elephant in the room.
“ESPN abandoned us,” he said, adding, “We are comrades in arms with you guys regardless of what happened.”
Kirk said the NFL proved a mightier force of opposition than even recent Frontline targets like the National Security Agency. “PBS stood by us,” even as ESPN pulled out and the league maintained a wall of silence, Kirk said. “No other network would have done that.”
Outside the Lines has consistently delivered on the reporting front with concussions, but the decision to pull out of League of Denial came from the highest levels of the company. The lasting effect in damaging ESPN’s reputation in the reporting sense isn’t for the countless hardworking individuals there who have tirelessly worked on the NFL’s concussion crisis. It’s that when push came to shove, for its most important work on the matter, ESPN caved into the NFL. If that’s the case, what’s to stop ESPN from caving in to other league partners? What’s to stop them from abandoning not just PBS, but any sense of reporting responsibility in the future? What’s to stop them from working for the leagues instead of covering them objectively? That’s the slippery slope in the ESPN/PBS fallout.
While the ESPN quote is certainly newsworthy, don’t overlook Kirk’s statement that the NFL put up more of a fight against investigative reporting than the NSA. If Roger Goodell is spying on the NSA who’s spying on all of us as part of his plan for world domination, don’t say I didn’t warn you.