ESPN's decision to back out of a co-produced documentary about concussions in football, raised a lot of eyebrows, but not as many as the new report that ESPN made the decision after executives were personally lobbied by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. According to The New York Times, Goodell met with two of ESPN's top executives last week — President John Skipper and Executive VP for Production John Wildhack — and "conveyed [his] displeasure with the direction of the documentary" currently being produced by the PBS series Frontline. A recently released trailer presents the idea that the league has turned a blind eye to head injuries and long-term disability caused by careers in football. Days later, ESPN withdrew its name and logos from the collaborative project, even though it is based almost exclusively on the reporting of two of the network's own employees.
The Times story was written by James Andrew Miller, who literally wrote the book about ESPN and has better sources inside the organization than anyone. He describes the dinner meeting as "combative" and the sources make it clear that it was this pressure from Goodell that influenced ESPN's decision. The NFL denies that interpretation, saying in a statement that the meeting was requested by ESPN as part of its normal business dealings. ESPN also denies being influenced by business interests.
(Also worth noting is that the other man at the dinner meeting was Steve Bornstein, who is the president of the NFL Network — and the man who used to have Skipper's job. Bornstein was one of ESPN's first employees and rose to the position of Chairman of ESPN, as well as President of ABC. He spent more than 20 years at the company before being hired away by the NFL to help launch the league's exclusive cable channel.)
After Frontline announced ESPN's withdrawal from the project, the natural assumption from many observers was that the network was distancing itself because it knows what side its bread is buttered on. The NFL is the most popular sport on the most popular sports network, and Monday Night Football is a linchpin of the company's fall programming. They pay the NFL more than $1 billion a year to broadcast 17 weekly games and would obviously want to be very careful about jeopardizing that relationship with an embarrassing story. Yet, there's a subtle, but important difference between acting in what you believe is your best interest and taking direct orders from a corporate client. Particularly when it means undermining one of the two competing missions of your company: Covering the world of sports fairly and objectively.
The tension between ESPN's news division and its core entertainment business has surfaced many times in the past, and this isn't the first time people have questioned whether ESPN's reporters can objectively investigate the businesses that make ESPN rich. The network's first (and last) attempt to create original dramatic programming was a show about life on a professional football team that was heavily criticized by the NFL. It lasted one season before being canceled by an ESPN executive who said "we're not in the business of antagonizing our partner."
It's also one thing to cancel a fictional (not very good) TV show on behalf of a partner. But when that partnership jeopardizes legitimate news reporting on a serious health issue affecting the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of athletes, that's a serious breach of public trust. ESPN continues to insist that its business dealings with the NFL played no role in the decision, but at this point, there are not very many people buying it. And all of ESPN's news stories will begin to suffer from that distrust.
The good news for PBS is that the controversy makes their film (which airs in October) a must-watch, raising even more awareness of the problem of football concussions. It also drives home one of the key themes of Frontline's story: That the NFL is a monstrous corporation ("a multibillion-dollar commercial juggernaut") that allows profit to trump all concerns about safety and ethics. Maybe now they'll say the same thing about ESPN.
Update: ESPN, on behalf of President John Skipper, issued a statement on Friday afternoon:
We have been leaders in reporting on the concussion issue, dating back to the mid-1990s. Most recently, we aired a lengthy, thorough, well-reported segment on "Outside the Lines" on Sunday, and re-aired it Tuesday.
I want to be clear about ESPN’s commitment to journalism and the work of our award-winning enterprise team. 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."