Is ESPN the NFL's bitch?

Roger Goodell has to do nothing more than have lunch with ESPN's John Skipper and the network pulls out of their 15-month partnership with PBS' Frontline reporting on and analyzing the statistics on concussions in the league and attempts to make football safer.

See the images above for a quick game of "Find the Difference." Today the ESPN logo no longer appears on the website and will not be mentioned in promotion for the episode of Frontline called, ironically enough, League of Denial. Gee, wonder why the NFL has a problem with THAT?

Here's the trailer for it:

I would bet he threatened to pull the Monday Night game from ESPN's schedule. That's a lot of rating points for Disney/ABC. Also that game is perfect counterprogramming to Dancing With the Stars on ABC. I mean, it's soooo perfect.
What this says about ESPN's ability to report on leagues with which they have contracts speaks really loudly to me but what weight does it have with the rank & file of NFL fans? Or fans of other sports they air? Do they even care? Do they care if those hulking lineman they love to watch use their heads as missiles to take down their opposition, possibly leaving them with symptomology that will destroy their lives?

This Washington Post poll from 2012 might answer some of those questions. Analysis of that poll by Scott Clement from the Post:
Despite widespread concern, few football fans are bothered by head injuries enough to abandon the sport. Nearly nine in 10 pro football fans say reports on head injuries will make little difference in their viewership in the upcoming season, including those who say something needs to be done about it.
OMG what will happen to World's Strongest Man? (kidding ... only half kidding actually, it's probably my favorite thing on the network)

To their credit, ESPN ran an analysis of the timeline of events here from their ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, who says:
Was ESPN naïve about the relationship with a hard-driving documentary unit whose viewership, not to mention its bottom line, was not invested in football? Was it also naïve to fail to anticipate the inevitable reaction from the NFL, which from the beginning had pointedly refused to cooperate with “Frontline” (no league footage, no Goodell interview, limited access to doctors who advise the NFL on concussions)? The league was not happy with a recent OTL report on one of its main doctors -- which ran on ESPN’s platforms just last weekend -- so why would it support “League of Denial”?

Or did ESPN cave in to pressure from the NFL or Disney or both? And if so, really, what was the point? It couldn’t have been to stifle interest in the project. The media coverage of ESPN’s decision to remove its imprimatur from the “Frontline” films will probably result in both a sales and ratings boost for the book and documentaries, respectively.

So what just happened? Beats me. At best we've seen some clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence. At worst, a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege. The best isn't very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel.
And Frontline? They remain the journalistic stalwart. From David Fanning and Raney Aronson, the shows producers:
We don’t normally comment on investigative projects in progress, but we regret ESPN’s decision to end a collaboration that has spanned the last 15 months and is based on the work of ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, as well as FRONTLINE’s own original journalism.

Over that time, we’ve enjoyed a productive partnership with ESPN’s investigative program, Outside the Lines, jointly publishing and co-branding several ground-breaking articles on our respective websites and on their broadcast. We’ve been in sync on the goals of our reporting: to present the deepest accounting so far of the league’s handling of questions around the long-term impact of concussions. This editorial partnership was similar to our many other collaborations with news organizations over the years.

ESPN’s decision will in no way affect the content, production or October release of FRONTLINE’s League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. The film is grounded in the Fainaru brothers’ forthcoming book, also titled League of Denial, and the authors will continue to participate in the production and be featured in the documentary.

The film 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 two-hour documentary and accompanying digital reporting will honor FRONTLINE’s rigorous standards of fairness, accuracy, transparency and depth.
The show airs on PBS on October 8.

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