ESPN, Frontline, and the Bottom Line

October 16, 2013
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League of Denial Last Tuesday PBS Frontline premiered League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, a damning investigation of the National Football League’s efforts to suppress and discredit mounting evidence that the head trauma professional football players routinely endure poses grave health risks. An accompanying book—written by ESPN investigative reporters (and brothers) Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru—was released the same day.

An embodiment of Frontline’s typically trustworthy fare, League of Denial discusses how the NFL reacted to allegations surrounding concussions’ permanent health risks with a combination of silence, renunciation, and meddling. The meddling was principally waged through the NFL’s Mild Brain Traumatic Injury committee, a group of league-appointed doctors that denied any definitive link between football and brain damage. Pushed along by talking-head interviews, the documentary outlines the NFL’s decades-long efforts to soften this controversy, from its initial rumblings to the NFL’s recent settlement with retired players—an agreement that incidentally did not require the league to admit any wrongdoing.

League of Denial was initially a co-production of ESPN and PBS. Frontline and ESPN’s Outside the Lines began a multimedia reporting partnership last November devoted to investigating concussions in the NFL. League of Denial was to serve as the partnership’s capstone. However, ESPN suddenly decided to separate its brand from the project in late August, citing an apparent lack of editorial oversight. Critics understandably surmised that the NFL—a partner ESPN now annually pays approximately $1.9 billion for the rights to carry Monday Night Football­—put the squeeze on the “Worldwide Leader,” a charge ESPN denies. While ESPN removed its brand from the project, the Fainarus are still captioned in the documentary as ESPN employees and the outlet has commented extensively on the project.

We can’t exactly prove the NFL bullied ESPN into kowtowing to its whims. We can, however, contextualize this instance by considering other moments when ESPN 1) has changed its content to satisfy the NFL and 2) advertised its lack of editorial input over comparable programming.

In 2003, ESPN subsidiary ESPN Original Entertainment produced the scripted drama Playmakers. The tawdry “ripped from the headlines” series depicted a fictional football team faced with a potpourri of scandals, from crack addiction to spousal abuse. ESPN marketed the prime-time program during its Sunday evening NFL telecasts, a choice that so irked NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue that he griped to Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner. Despite its popularity, ESPN decided not to renew the series. If the NFL successfully compelled ESPN to abandon a fictional series that never directly references the National Football League, it stands to reason that it might try to put the kibosh on League of Denial—a documentary that makes many of Playmakers’ lurid plot points seem blasé by comparison.

League of Denial emerged alongside a new season of ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 documentary series. In fact, Free Spirits—a nostalgic reflection on the American Basketball Association’s St. Louis Spirits—premiered at exactly the same time as League of Denial. What’s more, ESPN markets these documentaries as embodiments of their directors’ apparently unhindered creative inspiration. It publicizes participating directors as “filmmaking originals” and its website includes individualized “director’s statements” for each film that explain their personal relationship to their subject matter. Frontline—which has garnered nearly every honor a TV production can receive—is far more respected than most of the directors ESPN Films hires to create these documentaries. Anyone out there ever heard of Fritz Mitchell? How about Rory Karpf? No disrespect to Fritz and Rory, but Frontline they are not. Why, then, does ESPN purport to give these filmmakers creative freedom but refuse to allow Frontline—a series that seems to have the television documentary pretty well figured out at this point—to proceed as it sees fit with a project fueled by its own journalists’ reportage?

To recap, ESPN has changed its content to please the NFL and frequently cedes control—or at least claims to cede control—of its nonfiction programming. However, it suddenly decides not to commingle with Frontline after working alongside the franchise for nearly a year because it feared it did not have sufficient input. At the very least, it seems bizarre that ESPN would have such limited knowledge of how a project this high profile was developing so close to its premiere.

The lesson here is not that ESPN seems to cave to the NFL. The NFL is ESPN’s most powerful client and will inevitably color its content—if not through direct edicts, then certainly in more subtle ways. But this is old news. The real takeaway, I think, is the crucial importance of identifying the forces that guide precisely when ESPN decides it suitable (or unacceptable) to give up editorial control and using this context to critique the rhetorical strategies ESPN employs to explain away these suspicious choices. This is increasingly vital as ESPN continues to bill itself—without so much as a smirk—as a site that responsibly probes sport’s cultural meanings while its programming contracts keep the world’s wealthiest sports organizations in business.


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One Response to “ ESPN, Frontline, and the Bottom Line ”

  1. Myles McNutt on October 16, 2013 at 3:36 PM

    Thanks for this, Travis—I haven’t had time to watch the documentary, but this has been a fascinating case to follow. For context, I wanted to share one link and one anecdote.

    First, I don’t know if you had seen this, but ESPN has an Ombudsman who commented on this case soon after next broke. It’s a really interesting take from “inside but outside,” and addresses many of the issues you raise here:

    Second, I was in attendance when PBS held a panel for the project at TCA Press Tour in August, which the Ombudsman cites as one of the catalysts for ESPN’s departure. They cite a particularly “sensational” trailer as the cause, but many critics also asked the ESPN representative on the panel for comment based on these kinds of concerns, and even then they were adamantly and publicly in support of the project. The shift in branding was notable more broadly, but for critics in the room it was particularly powerful given how firmly ESPN had insisted their support only weeks earlier.