The Washington Post

ESPN pulls out of “Frontline” investigation, denies pressure from NFL

Watch “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” preview on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

ESPN won’t be collaborating with PBS’ “Frontline” on an investigation into the NFL’s response to concussions and brain injuries after all.

“League of Denial,” a joint project by PBS’s long-form journalism series and “Outside the Lines,” was announced last November and was to have included a “Frontline” documentary as well as reports on ESPN and PBS websites and a book co-written by ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, a former Washington Post reporter.

ESPN’s explanation?

Earlier this month, ESPN and PBS made a "League of Denial" presentation at the PBS portion of the Television Critics Association tour. (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images) Earlier this month, ESPN and PBS made a “League of Denial” presentation at the PBS portion of the Television Critics Association tour. (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images)

“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,” it said in a statement Thursday evening. “The use of ESPN’s marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control. As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting.”

The decision, the New York Times reports, came after pressure was placed on ESPN by the NFL, which regards the networks with which it has deals as “broadcast partners,” in what the Times said was a “combative” lunch meeting. The NFL denied that. “At no time did we formally or informally ask them to divorce themselves from the project,” spokesman Greg Aiello told the Times. “We know the movie was happening and the book was happening, and we respond to them as best we can. We deny that we pressured them.”

“Frontline” executive producer David Fanning and deputy executive producer Raney Aronson announced Thursday evening that the arrangement was ending in a statement on the PBS website and said that Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru would “participate in the production and be featured in the documentary,” which is “grounded” in the brothers’ book, due out in October. ESPN and “Outside the Lines” logos and credits will not appear on the League of Denial and Concussion Watch websites or in the documentary.

Fanning and Aronson added that the documentary is “still being edited and has not been seen by ESPN news executives, although we were on schedule to share it with them for their editorial input.” The collaboration, which Aronson told the New Republic’s Marc Tracy had worked well, was ended earlier this week and last month ESPN quietly moved “OTL” to ESPN2 on Sunday mornings.

The NFL had not participated in the documentary, with Aiello telling the Times that it did not make Commissioner Roger Goodell or other executives available for interviews. Doctors who advise the league on concussions were allowed to participate. The league is presently being sued by over 4,000 former players and the families of former players who claim that they’re suffering debilitating effects from head injuries and that the league covered up the dangers of concussions.

ESPN also denied that the separation from PBS was related to its $15.2 billion deal to carry “Monday Night Football,” but executives had to have seen the trailer for the documentary, the one in which Dr. Bennet Omalu says, “You can’t go against the NFL. They’ll squash you.”

Follow @CindyBoren on Twitter and on Facebook.


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After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.



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Cindy Boren · August 23, 2013