ESPN's Massive Conflict of Interest

To a significant extent, ESPN has always been in la-la land about its ability to do news reporting while it also hocks the products its supposed to be covering evenhandedly. But the NFL concussion story may well prove to be the most serious blow to its self-image yet.
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Earlier this week, I wrote about an excellent recent report on ESPN's Outside the Lines focusing on Dr. Elliot Pellman, the long-time head of the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee. That committee has long been accused by critics of having downplayed the health consequences of repeated head trauma resulting from playing football and is at the center of a lawsuit being brought on thousands of retired NFL players against the league. The OTL report was part of a collaboration between ESPN and the award-winning PBS documentary series, Frontline. The culmination of that collaboration was to be a two-part documentary that PBS is planning to run on October 8 and October 15, titled "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis" (as part of the endeavor, a book of the same title, by ESPN writers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada is also due out in October. And PBS has maintained two websites, including Concussion Watch, which catalogs new concussions and provides other links and information). On Thursday, it was reported that ESPN had decided to pull out of the collaboration. ESPN said it did so because it did not have any editorial control over the content of the documentary. But the New York Times, on Friday, said that ESPN made the decision to withdraw from the project after the NFL expressed intense displeasure with its direction.

According to James Andrew Miller, co-author of the blockbuster 2011 bestselling oral history of ESPN, Those Guys Have All The Fun, the NFL became extremely displeased after the release on August 6 of a two-minute trailer for the film (scroll to the bottom of the link). ESPN and the NFL have both denied that the league pressured ESPN to pull out.

ESPN's financial investment in the NFL is enormous. In 2011, it signed a $15 billion dollar extension of its existing television contract which will result in its paying nearly $2 billion a year to the NFL from 2014 to 2021. In turn, ESPN's extraordinary market-making power is, to a significant degree, a consequence of its relationship with the NFL. Miller told Dan Patrick on Friday that ESPN gets $5.40 from every cable subscriber and owes this extraordinary financial leverage substantially to football.

Much of the commentary over the past 48 hours about ESPN's announcement has focused on why ESPN (and the NFL) are doing this now. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that Frontline was planning to produce a documentary painting a quite dire picture of the impact of football-induced head trauma on the long-term health and well-being of football players. The NFL, from the beginning, would not make league officials, including Commissioner Roger Goodell, available to be interviewed. In spite of that hostility, ESPN's own reporting on the issue, especially via OTL, has already portrayed the severity of the problem.

Perhaps the NFL's growing anxiety about the film is an outgrowth of the advancing litigation currently before Federal Judge Anita Brody, who has ordered the parties to try to work out their differences through mediation and is expected to rule soon on an NFL motion to dismiss the suit. According to Raney Aronson-Rath, a deputy executive producer with Frontline, ESPN raised no complaints until about a week ago and that three members of the NFL's Neck, Head and Spine committee (which replaced the old, discredited MTBI committee) had recently agreed to be interviewed on camera for League of Denial, before canceling. Dwayne Bray, the ESPN producer who was working with Frontline and, as recently as three weeks ago, was stilling touting the joint venture, reportedly told the demoralized staff at OTL that "Disney folks got involved and shut us down."

In the New York Times today, Miller and Ken Belson wrote that: "These kinds of skirmishes have been around for as long as companies have dabbled in both media and entertainment businesses. But the potential for conflicts are particularly acute at ESPN, which has tentacles throughout the sports world and whose mission is to cover sports that it actively promotes." ESPN says it will continue to report the concussion story, and I have no doubt that it will. But the decision to stop working with Frontline, which ESPN execs have acknowledged "looks bad," raises further questions about ESPN's credibility as a news organization. To some, that very sentence may be worthy of little more than a dismissive chortle. But the fact is that ESPN prizes its credibility as, among other things, a news-gathering organization.

I did a search a little while ago at for "PBS" and a separate one for "Frontline." I found zero hits reporting on ESPN's pulling the plug (the searches did call up previous OTL pieces on concussions). That strikes me as pretty noteworthy, given that the news has gotten a ton of media attention in the past 48 hours. It also highlights a potentially fundamental problem at the World Wide Leader: the prospect that the ability of the number one sports media organization in the world to report credibly on what could be the major sports story of the next decade -- the long-term viability of the number one sport in America -- will be fundamentally compromised. To a significant extent, ESPN has always been in la-la land about its ability to do news reporting while it also hocks the products its supposed to be covering evenhandedly. But the NFL concussion story may well prove to be the most serious blow to its self-image yet.

(I assume ESPN's new ombudsman, the legendary sports writer Robert Lipsyte, will weigh in on all this at some point. But he hasn't yet).

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