NEW YORK (CBSMiami) – The most popular sports organization in the world, the NFL, and the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN, are in a war of words over a lengthy investigative report the sports network was working with PBS’ Frontline on the issue of concussions in football.
According to the New York Times, ESPN, was pressured by the NFL to pull out of an investigative documentary between ESPN’s Outside the Lines and Frontline that was looking at concussions and the NFL’s role in dealing with the epidemic in the sport.
ESPN and PBS had been working in tandem on the program for 15 months. But, according to the Times, earlier this month a high-level meeting between the NFL and ESPN ended and on Thursday, ESPN pulled out of the meeting.
ESPN’s life blood is the National Football League as the rise in popularity for both has gone hand-in-hand over the past two decades. ESPN currently pays the NFL $1.3 billion a year to broadcast the rights to Monday Night Football.
The NFL has denied exerting any pressure on ESPN to cut ties with the Frontline documentary and ESPN followed suit saying its exit from the documentary was due to a lack of editorial control on its end. However, ESPN had long known its role in the documentary and was publishing in tandem with PBS.
If the NFL did exert pressure on ESPN, it wouldn’t be the first time. The league publicly pushed for the network to pull the plug on a fictional show called “Playmakers” several years ago. The show portrayed the pro football life graphically and the NFL thought unfairly, but others said the NFL was worried because the show was accurate about some aspects of NFL life.
ESPN would pull Playmakers after one season, thanks in large part to the public pressure the NFL applied.
The NFL has had other problems with ESPN’s reporting, specifically the reporting of Outside the Lines in recent years. The league had to push back against a story on ESPN about the late Mike Webster and a disability payout to him and accused a reporter of being on a witch hunt, according to profootballtalk.com.
ESPN’s Outside the Lines also suffered an embarrassing string of stories including the series of stories looking at former Syracuse assistant coach Bernie Fine and an alleged New Orleans Saints wiretapping case that was never corroborated, but allowed to air anyway.
The problem for ESPN is that even if the NFL did overtly or covertly try to pressure the network into bowing out of the concussion investigation documentary, either way the network looks bad.
If ESPN chose on its own to step away, but said it was for editorial reasons, then did no management know anything of the deal for the past 15 months? Did no one at the Worldwide Leader in Sports have knowledge of what was going on throughout the process?
If ESPN chose to end the Frontline joint investigation looking into the NFL because it was worried about how the NFL would react, it completely undercuts the network’s very publicly pushed claim of independent journalism. If a major sponsor/partner can exert that kind of control on the journalism/news side of the building, then there’s a blurring of the lines over who exactly has control.
The biggest winner in the entire story is PBS and Frontline. They come off looking like an independent journalistic institution looking to find the real story amidst a sea of corporate meddling. Plus, the publicity around the documentary/book should fuel big ratings and sales for both.