Those looking forward to seeing PBS Frontline's new film League of Denial will probably notice the anticipated ESPN logo accompanying the film suspiciously absent. ESPN has announced that it is pulling out of the joint project, a film dealing with the NFL's response to a growing trend of serious head injuries in the sport. It has become increasingly clear, however, that ESPN might have been pressured into leaving the venture.
The 15-month project consisted of two parts to be shown on October 8 and 15. The investigative work is based in large part on the reporting of Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, brothers and reporters working for ESPN. Although ESPN has cut ties to this particular project, the Fainaru brothers are continuing to work independently.
While ESPN is denying allegations of outside pressure, those claims appear to be contradicted by a new report that came out today from the New York Times. Citing two sources speaking on anonymity, a luncheon involving big wigs such as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, ESPN president John Skipper, and NFL Network president Steve Bornstein was convened in order to discuss the upcoming film. At the luncheon, league officials voiced their displeasure with the "Direction of the documentary." In other words, we don't like that this documentary does not say nice stuff about us, so please step away from this project. Apparently league officials were expecting a nice PR job.
The notion that ESPN would falter before pressure from the NFL is not out of whack at all. After all, ESPN brings in a lot of revenue as a result of the popularity of the NFL. And ESPN is in the middle of a lucrative contract with the NFL that allows for the media giant to broadcast Monday Night Football through 2021. If the NFL comes calling, ESPN at the very least considers it.
Of course, at issue here is the NFL's handling of concussions and other neurological phenomena that former players are being subjected to. The league is currently in the midst of a class-action lawsuit involving 4000 former players, arguing that the league had deliberately masked information concerning the threat of various brain illnesses.
Interestingly enough, what this PBS Frontline story informs us is that the NFL is working overtime to undermine reporting that could possibly expose the validity of these former player's claims.