When word broke that ESPN was unexpectedly and belatedly ending its involvement with PBS's Frontline on a pair of documentaries investigating head injuries in football, ESPN swore up and down it had nothing to do with keeping the NFL happy. According to a report in today's New York Times, that was a bold-faced lie.
ESPN's statement was that it was pulling out because it had no editorial control over the documentaries—even though it's known that for months, and as recently as two weeks ago was trumpeting its partnership with Frontline. Here comes ESPN bugbear James Andrew Miller with a much more plausible explanation for the network's cold feet:
Last week, several high-ranking officials convened a lunch meeting 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; ESPN’s president, John Skipper; and John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production.
At the combative meeting, the people said, league officials conveyed their displeasure 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.
The documentaries are based off the work of two ESPN reporters, who also have a forthcoming book. League of Denial airs on PBS Oct. 8 and 15, and will now receive a hell of a lot more attention than it would have otherwise.
Update: The NFL has issued a statement denying the report:
"It is not true that we pressured ESPN to pull out of the film. The lunch was requested several weeks ago by ESPN. We meet with our business partners on a regular basis and this was not unusual."
Update No. 2: Here's ESPN's statement:
"The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL. As we have in the past including as recently as Sunday, we will continue to cover the concussion story aggressively through our own reporting."