This article has been updated on September 6 with corrected programming info.
ESPN’s decision to withdraw from an upcoming documentary on concussions in the NFL has drawn attention to the notion that the “Worldwide Leader” has a problem maintaining its journalistic integrity when it comes to covering sports it airs.
ESPN had formed a partnership with the documentary series “Frontline”, and with authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, to produce an expose on the league and its handling of concussions, set to air in October on PBS. It’s based on the Fainaru brothers’ upcoming book “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth”. This collaboration was so highly respected by all three parties, they appeared together at a press event earlier this month (see photo).
That’s why it was so jarring to hear that ESPN had abruptly pulled out. It says it did so because it has no editorial control over the program. But that’s raising eyebrows because, if that’s really the reason, why didn’t it jump ship earlier on during the 15-month collaboration? It had to know the PBS crew had editorial control from the outset.
Instead, it’s been reported that the NFL, which just settled its lawsuit with former players for $765 million over concussions, was not happy about one of its broadcast partners being involved in a damaging documentary, and leaned on corporate-owner Disney, who then leaned on ESPN. There’s also this explanation.
Regardless of which is the real reason, the situation is troubling because ESPN operates both as a source of live sports and investigative sports journalism. The notion that it would have stayed the course had the program been about a sport it doesn’t cover, like the NHL, but bailed out because there’s a rights deal involved is damning. It indicates that the line between ESPN’s entertainment and news departments wavers, and that the latter can’t be relied upon when there’s a conflict involving dollar signs. That’s not good for a brand that has a 24-hour channel called “ESPNews”.
What makes it worse is that ESPN declared it would continue to cover the issue of concussions on its own program “Outside The Lines”, but is subsequently moving OTL to the less-watched ESPN2 and airing it in worse timeslots to make way for NFL-related programming on ESPN.
Meahwhile, the Fainaru brothers, who work for ESPN, hence the partnership, have stated they’re disappointed with ESPN’s decision but that the documentary itself remains unchanged, other than having ESPN’s branding removed.
The 2-hour documentary is scheduled to air on October 8, the same day the book is released. You’ll find it locally on KQED channel 9 at 9 p.m. You can also visit Frontline’s “Concussion Watch” page which tracks NFL players with head injuries, which was established as part of the collaboration. ESPN’s branding has been excised here as well.
Maybe the Fainaru’s next book should be “Network of Denial”.
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