ESPN is aggressively promoting League of Denial, the new book by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru on the NFL's concussion crisis, today. There's an excerpt of the book published on ESPN.com. There's a lot of space dedicated to it on the site's front page. There's a story about the book. The brothers did an eight-minute segment with Bob Ley on SportsCenter, and it included a short clip from the Frontline documentary that's accompanying the book. The brothers went on to talk about it with Colin Cowherd and will be on Outside The Lines later today to talk more about it. The excerpt, and the brothers' assessment of the league, are not kind to the NFL.
Reading and watching all of this is made stranger by the fact that ESPN decided to pull out of its partnership with PBS on the Frontline documentary back in August. It puts ESPN in the awkward position of promoting its own reporters' work while having to acknowledge that their reporting does not actually belong to ESPN. Don Van Natta Jr.'s article about the book, for instance, refers to the Fainarus as "ESPN investigative reporters" twice in the first three paragraphs—and also points readers over to Sports Illustrated's website, where they can find another excerpt.
This is ESPN's attempt to make up for a public relations disaster. It's not a bad effort, and it's more certainly aggressive than anyone could have imagined after ESPN pulled out of the relationship just days after Roger Goodell had lunch at Patroon with ESPN president John Skipper. When ESPN formally pulled out, it was described as a grim day for ESPN's newsroom. Some people directed the blame at Disney's chief counsel Alan Braverman—a figure who's been known to get weak-kneed in the face of tough journalism—which, if correct, helps today's push make more sense. According to this theory, after all, ESPN dropped out due to corporate interference, not out of some arresting desire to protect the NFL.
But that brings us back to the central problem of ESPN-as-corporate-entity and its uneasy relationship with its own newsroom. The partnership between ESPN and PBS was, after all, really weird to begin with: ESPN certainly had the resources to do a blowout mega-investigation on its own. It was as if the network wanted to use Frontline as a shield, with the idea being that so long as PBS was involved, ESPN would have some cover from the inevitable blowback.
The cynicism of the arrangement was exposed when ESPN made the claim that it pulled out of the documentary because it wouldn't have full editorial control over it. This seemed inherently implausible—why partner with Frontline if you weren't even sure it was in the business of making its own movies?—and didn't really line up with how PBS seems to have understood the deal. Frontline producer Raney Aronson-Rath told me that it was clear from the get-go how the relationship would work: ESPN would have full control of stuff that appeared on its site and network; PBS would have full control of what appeared on its network.
Now, though, we get the bizarre spectacle of ESPN essentially aggregating what its own reporters reported, and maybe the whole thing worked out just fine after all. ESPN gets to say: Look at what these guys reported. It seems devastating! And ESPN is happy to take credit for employing them, and to give them some airtime in between updates on the Josh Freeman mess and the Indians-Rays game tonight. Meanwhile, it can remind its partners at the NFL that it didn't publish the book, and that its logo won't appear on the documentary. ESPN is promoting the book, but doing so from a distance. The weirdness wasn't lost on the Fainarus.
"We've said repeatedly that this was a disappointing episode, especially since the partnership worked so well," the Fainarus said in a chat on—wait for it—ESPN.com today. "At the same time, the documentary is airing next Tuesday, Oct. 8, at 9 p.m., on PBS, and the reality is that both it and our book could not have been made with out the participation and support of ESPN. In the book, we note that ESPN pays the NFL nearly $2 billion a year to air Monday Night Football, which is like staging a $120 million Harry Potter every week. So it's not surprising that there's tension there. And we're still on the story for ESPN, with total support from our editors."
They didn't mention anything about their bosses' bosses.