ESPN Pulls Out of Documentary Covering Brain Injury in the NFL

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NFL Game from 2010

Source: Mark Botham

ESPN announced last Friday that it has asked to have its logos and credit removed from an episode of the PBS series “Frontline” set to air in October. The episode examines brain injuries within professional football and the way the National Football League has responded to the issue.

“League of Denial” was created over the past fifteen months in collaboration with ESPN’s news magazine program “Outside the Lines” and “Frontline” and will feature interviews with NFL players. Notably, it seems the league does not come out looking very well in the documentary.

In ESPN’s statement, they focused strongly on lack of editorial control as their motive for dropping support for the product. The company said, “the use of ESPN’s marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control.”

However, there may be more to the story as many have reported sources saying ESPN was pressured by the NFL to remove their support for the documentary. According to the New York Times, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell met with two of ESPN’s top executives, President John Skipper and Executive VP for Production John Wildhack, last week. Supposedly, Goodell “conveyed displeasure with the direction of the documentary.”

The trailer for he documentary was released recently, and it presents the league as having ignored head injuries and their accompanying risks, such as disability. It was only a couple days following the release of the trailer and the removal of all ESPN logos and credits, even though the film relies heavily on the reporting of two ESPN reporters.

The story claiming the NFL put pressure on ESPN was written by James Andrew Miller, who has very reliable sources within ESPN, and he describes the situation as “combative.” The NFL however, says the meeting was part of normal business, and was requested by ESPN who also denies the allegations.

It is also possible ESPN decided to withdraw public support or credit for the documentary due to simple business interests. The NFL is the most popular sport on American television, and ESPN relies heavily on NFL broadcasts for their schedule. They pay more than $1 billion to the NFL every year to broadcast seventeen weekly games. Clearly, it wouldn’t be in the businesses best interests to take part in a documentary that could be potentially damaging to the NFL.

To be fair, it is possible ESPN and the NFL are being honest, and the network simply didn’t want to be associated with a film they had no actual control over. They have done previous concussion coverage, and stressed they would continue to be reporting on the issue in the future. Their response to the allegations stressed this. It read:

We have been leaders in reporting on the concussion issue, dating back to the mid-1990s. Most recently, we aired a lengthy, thorough, well-reported segment on “Outside the Lines” on Sunday, and re-aired it Tuesday.

I want to be clear about ESPN’s commitment to journalism and the work of our award-winning enterprise team. We will continue to report this story and will continue to support the work of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.

We have respect as well for the efforts of the people at “Frontline.”

Only time will tell what really led ESPN to back out of the documentary, however it would be a good bet PBS will actually benefit. Being part of a well reported potential scandal tends to raise awareness for films more than any marketing could.

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