Last week ESPN surprised followers by removing its logo and official affiliation from the PBS documentary project, “League of Denial,” which looks into brain injuries in the National Football League. Many suspect that the network caved into pressure from the league to back out.
The ESPN television network pays billions to the NFL each year for permission to show their games; yet journalists and reporters with ESPN also cover news stories related to the leagues. Those two positions are now at odds as ESPN backs out of its joint investigation with PBS covering the concussion crisis among football players.
The whole project originated over a year ago when two reporters for ESPN, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, began writing a book about brain injuries and the NFL. The PBS series “Frontline” then became interested in creating a documentary to cover their research. ESPN also thought this would be a hit, and offered to partner up on the project. The Fainarus then wrote several tough articles about possible cover-ups in the NFL as the concussion crisis has escalated. “League of Denial,” which will be a two-part “Frontline” documentary, is due out in October.
While the conflict of interest may seem obvious to many, it is not surprising that programmers at ESPN would have been excited by the project. Both Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru have written highly successful books in recent years, with Steve even winning a Pulitzer Prize for his Washington Post coverage of private security contractors in Iraq. Having teamed up with ESPN is a credit to the organizations journalistic integrity. The same is true of ESPN’s partnership with “Frontline,” a show that has received accolades for its sober public affairs investigations. Yet ESPN must also consider its relationship to the sports leagues that constitute its bread and butter.
Occupational Injury and the NFL Concussion Crisis
In fact, the New York Times reported earlier this week that the NFL pressured ESPN to drop out of the documentary. NFL executives had earlier communicated their disapproval of the documentary’s content and conclusions. But once the title was released, they went into full-blown damage control. Of especial concern was a trailer that featured a doctor claiming she’s worried that every football player might suffer from long-term brain damage. This is exactly the kind of scenario where the NFL could find itself liable for countless occupational injury claims if current and retired NFL players with concussions file suits that qualify as an on the job injury. Even more, medical findings and escalating work injury lawsuits could leaving everyone from helmet manufacturers to coaches open to potential Third party claims by injured players.
The NFL denies pressuring the network.
ESPN pays over $1 billion each year to the NFL for its “Monday Night Football” show. It would be hard to understate the importance of this business for ESPN. Executives and shareholders, especially those at Walt Disney (ESPN’s parent company) want to protect that relationship.
Ultimately, however, many point out that ESPN cutting ties with “League of Denial” will only create more publicity and heighten the profile of the film.