Following Thursday's decision to pull out of a partnership with PBS' Frontline on a film about concussions in the NFL, ESPN execs are fielding questions about Disney's role in the split.
Last week, The New York Times reported that the NFL pressured ESPN to cut ties with League of Denial, an upcoming Frontline documentary that alleges the league worked to cover up evidence demonstrating the long-term effects concussions have on NFL players. According to the Times, about a week before Frontline officially announced ESPN's departure, ESPN president John Skipper had lunch with ESPN executive vice president of production John Wildhack, NFL Network president Steve Bornstein, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, where the two NFL suits made their displeasure with the documentary known. Soon thereafter, ESPN broke up with PBS for good.
Both the league and ESPN have released statements denying that version of events. Skipper told ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte that he terminated the partnership after he saw the "sensational" trailer, which features a series of bone-crunching hits and promises to "change the way you see the game." But over the last 48 hours a counter-theory has emerged, alleging that calls to dump the documentary — despite the fact that much of the research for it was done by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru — came not from the NFL, but from ESPN's parent company, Disney.
Not only is ESPN owned by Disney, the sports cabler, which airs Monday Night Football, provides the bulk of the parent company's profit. In fact, ESPN's relentless, often maddening coverage of the NFL is a big reason it's now worth $40 billion. On Sunday, Lipsyte reported that ESPN president Skipper discussed the documentary with lawyers for Disney and ESPN, as well as Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger. Skipper, speaking to Lipsyte, denied that Iger played a role in his decision to cut ties with PBS: "I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming."
Maybe so, but that passage was enough to spark intrigue among observers of the Connecticut-based Worldwide Leader. Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch, who is well-versed on the goings-on in Bristol, is urging his fans to pay extra close attention to that relatively small part of Lipsyte's report on social media and in his weekly media column. Deitsch also spoke with Frontline's deputy executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath, who spoke of her shock over the severed association, adding that it "was one of the best partnerships we had with the journalists at ESPN."
Many people have questioned the assumption that it was the NFL that influenced ESPN's decision to back out of the project, arguing that, over the years, ESPN has done plenty of reporting on the league's issues with injuries and concussions. On Sunday, before Lipsyte's story was even posted, an anonymous ESPN reporter told The Nation's Dave Zirin that Disney, in fact, is the only believable culprit:
Another person theorized that everyone, including the Miller, Belson and The New York Times are reading the entire story backward. “The only thing that makes sense is that this was The Mouse. This was Disney [parent company of ESPN]. ESPN is the heart of Disney’s profitability and the NFL is the heart of that. I think Disney told the NFL to tell [ESPN president John] Skipper to cut it out. Then their paws are clean… But that could be wrong. I don’t know. I need a drink. And yes, you can include that.”