Alex Veeneman, Opinions Editor
It was supposed to be the exposé of the year — how does the NFL, one of the coveted pastimes in the United States, respond to the issue of concussions? The league had been under pressure from former players and scientists on its response to them and the long-term affects on brain injuries. The producers of PBS’ Frontline were working with ESPN on the documentary “League of Denial” until it hit a major setback.
ESPN pulled the partnership with Frontline, and what happened next challenges the nature of the journalism Frontline wanted to accomplish with investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, who were writing a book on the subject with the same name.
Initial reports that came after the partnership was severed suggested that the NFL influenced the network to pull the partnership. A report in The New York Times indicated the conversation took place over a lunch meeting with ESPN and NFL executives. ESPN currently holds NFL games on Monday nights in addition to other coverage of the game.
A spokesperson for ESPN did not reply to specific questions for this column, but in a statement said because the network did not exercise editorial control or produce the program, it would incorrectly imply that ESPN had editorial control.
“Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the Frontline documentaries, there will be no co-branding involving ESPN on the documentaries or their marketing materials,” the statement read. “As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting.”
In a separate statement, ESPN said it was not influenced by the NFL on the decision to remove the partnership.
Additionally, ESPN president John Skipper said in a statement the network had been leading the coverage of the League’s response to concussions, re-airing a segment on concussions that was part of an “Outside the Lines” broadcast in August.
“I want to be clear about ESPN’s commitment to journalism and the work of our award-winning enterprise team,” Skipper said. “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.”
The NFL did not respond to The Flyer’s request for comment on the relationship and the meeting with ESPN executives, though the NFL said in reports the launch had been requested in advance and denied influencing ESPN on the partnership.
At Frontline, the work continues. Pam Johnston, Frontline’s Director of Audience Development, said the League did not communicate with Frontline regarding the documentary, but declined several requests for interviews.
Johnston added that ESPN also did not share any concerns, editorial or otherwise, prior to the dissolving, saying it began as a request for branding to be removed and then it escalated.
“We were surprised,” Johnston said. “We had a fruitful relationship for 15 months.”
Johnston added that Frontline had not been aware of the meeting with ESPN and NFL executives, as reported in the Times. It is unclear if ESPN would partner with Frontline again if the opportunity arose, but in a statement published on Frontline’s website, executive producer David Fanning and deputy executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath said Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru would continue to be involved in the documentary.
Fanning and Aronson-Rath added that the final documentary would continue Frontline’s “rigorous standards of fairness, accuracy, transparency and depth.”
No matter who said what to whom or what happened behind the scenes, it was a mistake on ESPN’s part to pull the partnership. ESPN has demonstrated its decline in the world of sports journalism, especially with the recent coverage of LeBron James and the Miami Heat. This partnership would have secured the fact for ESPN that it stood for good journalism.
What we have now is a network not willing to take journalistic risks because of what the business response would be. A network that no longer stands for journalism. A network that’s just a network.
Though admittedly I am not a huge NFL fan, this is a topic that has caused a lot of buzz, and it is wonderful that Frontline is taking on the task of investigating it. Unlike ESPN, they will continue to have the respect for the work they do in bringing these issues to public attention and debate, and will devote the time to cover these issues completely, accurately and without hesitation.
If only ESPN will learn.