ESPN Flagged for Caving into Corporate Pressure

Did ESPN knuckle under to pressure from the NFL when they withdrew their cooperation from a controversial PBS documentary on concussions in pro football?

ESPN’s ombudsman Robert Lipsyte (who knew ESPN even had an ombudsman?) investigated the charge and was unable to determine the truth of the matter. What he did find was that there is compelling evidence that pressure was applied to executives at the network by both the NFL and ESPN’s parent company, Walt Disney, Inc. to distance the network from the documentary project.

The PBS film, produced by Frontline, is titled “League in Denial: The NFL Concussions and the Battle for the Truth.” Not exactly a title that would get the NFL’s legs tingling. ESPN’s role in producing and making the documentary is extremely hazy — “sloppy” says Lipsyte. Indeed, the extent of the network’s involvement appears to vary depending on who you speak to. An executive producer with Frontline told Lipsyte the relationship was more of an “editorial exchange.” However it’s characterized, the New York Times reported on August 23 that ESPN was pulling out of the project, denying Frontline the use of its brand.

So, what happened? The ostensible reason for the change of heart comes from ESPN President John Skipper, who pointed to the lack of “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.”

Skipper saw a trailer for the documentary and began to have second thoughts. The tagline for the film — “Get ready to change the way you see the game” — was particularly upsetting, as was a sound bite from a doctor who commented on the extent of brain injuries in the league: “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”

This is the background to a story that now becomes a familiar push-pull narrative in the news business. ESPN makes enormous amounts of money by carrying NFL games, and running other NFL programming. Eight days prior to Skipper’s announcement, there was a meeting between the league and ESPN executives, after which, Skipper also talked to Disney Chairman Bob Iger.

The New York Times reports on the pivotal meeting between the league and Skipper:

The meeting took place at Patroon, near the league’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, according to the two people, who requested anonymity because they were prohibited by their superiors from discussing the matter publicly. It was a table for four: Roger Goodell, commissioner of the N.F.L.; Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network; John Skipper, ESPN’s president; and John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production.

The meeting was combative, the people said, with league officials conveying their irritation with the direction of the documentary, which is expected to describe a narrative that has been captured in various news reports over the past decade: the league turning a blind eye to evidence that players were sustaining brain trauma on the field that could lead to profound, long-term cognitive disability.

Aside from the obvious bad publicity that the NFL is getting on this story, there is also the matter of more than 4,200 named player-plaintiffs in lawsuits over concussion-linked injuries. This is a huge story that has repercussions for every team, every player, and the league itself. It is a big deal that ESPN pulled its cooperation with Frontline, after the two organizations participated in 9 other similar projects, according to Sports Illustrated.

But the move by ESPN to distance itself from Frontline because a project angered one of their “partners” is troubling to say the least. It brings to mind other incidents going back to the beginnings of television where corporations sponsoring programming or buying ad time on network news shows would put pressure on the network to “drop it or else.”

General Motors, General Electric, Ford, Monsanto, Northwest Airlines — all of those and many more in the 1950’s — 1970’s found it necessary to confront TV executives about the way news about their companies was handled. And it hardly mattered if the companies advertised on the network. Both CBS and ABC eventually killed projects that would have exposed the tobacco industry for their lies about nicotine not being addictive and the cancer-causing additives they used. The threat of being sued for billions in damages was a good deterrent.

But there is a major difference between the controversies in those days and the current one involving ESPN. The news divisions used to be loss leaders for the networks. Now, they’re profit centers. Beginning in the 1980’s it was determined that rather than being a separate division answerable only to the chairman of the network, the news division would be folded into programming and have to pay its own freight. The result was a slaughter — closed bureaus, staffs slashed, and the proliferation of 60 Minutes type shows that seemed far more like entertainment than news. Nowadays, corporations don’t have to browbeat news executives to cover a story a certain way. The news people know where their bread is buttered and act accordingly.

There seems little doubt that ESPN wanted to do the right thing. The producers and writers who worked with Frontline make that absolutely clear. And staffers at ESPN knew that something bad was going to happen in the days leading up to the pivotal announcement by Skipper:

Staffers at ESPN had let this column know over the past month that they were fearful something like this could happen with the Frontline-ESPN collaboration. They suggested pressure was being exerted by the NFL at levels well above Outside The Lines management. Said one ESPN staffer last week: “I’m hearing of stuff I never thought I’d see at our place.”

“We had collaboration credit in two different places in their broadcast,” Aronson-Rath said of the Pellman story. “My feeling is, and I can’t verify this, it appears to me that it was not their [OTL management’s] decision. Nobody confirmed that for me but clearly [ESPN senior coordinating producer] Dwayne Bray was with us at the press tour a couple of weeks ago. That is as public as you can go with the TV critics announcing this and being asked all these same questions that are emerging right now.

Outside the Lines, ESPN’s excellent and illuminating show about sports in society didn’t deserve this kind of treatment from its own network brass.

What effect this will have on staff morale can be imagined, but its effect on programming at ESPN may be even more profound. The network has made it pretty clear through it’s actions that it doesn’t much care for boat rockers. A pity, that. If any segment of our society needs to have its boat rocked, its sports. It’s hard to imagine how the games kids play — now with billions of dollars at stake — have achieved such an exalted status in America. Cutting the sports culture down to size would seem a worthwhile endeavor.

An endeavor that ESPN has stepped back from engaging in.