ESPN’s Massive Conflict of Interest

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(Harry Carson – one of my all time favorite players)

Earlier this week, I wrote about an excellent recent report by ESPN’s Outside the Lines on Dr. Elliot Pellman, the long-time head of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee. That committee has long been accused by critics of having downplayed the health consequences of repeated head trauma resulting from playing football and is at the center of a lawsuit being brought on thousands of retired NFL players against the league. The OTL report was part of a collaboration between ESPN and the award-winning PBS documentary series, Frontline. The culmination of that collaboration was to be a two-part documentary that PBS is planning to run on October 8 and October 15, titled League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis (as part of the endeavor, a book of the same title, by ESPN writers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada is also due out in October. And PBS has maintained two websites, including Concussion Watch, which catalogs new concussions and provides other links and information). On Thursday, it was reported that ESPN had decided to pull out of the collaboration. ESPN said it did so because it did not have any editorial control over the content of the documentary. But the New York Times, on Friday, said that ESPN made the decision to withdraw from the project after the NFL expressed intense displeasure with its direction.

According to James Andrew Miller, co-author of the blockbuster 2011 bestselling oral history of ESPN, Those Guys Have All The Fun, the NFL became extremely displeased after the release on August 6 of a two-minute trailer for the film (scroll to the bottom of the link). ESPN and the NFL have both denied that the league pressured ESPN to pull out.

ESPN’s financial investment in the NFL is enormous. In 2011, it signed a $15 billion dollar extension of its existing television contract which will result in its paying nearly $2 billion a year to the NFL from 2014 to 2021. In turn, ESPN’s extraordinary market-making power is, to a significant degree, a consequence of its relationship with the NFL. Miller told Dan Patrick on Friday that ESPN gets $5.40 from every cable subscriber and owes this extraordinary financial leverage substantially to football.

Much of the commentary over the past 48 hours about ESPN’s announcement has focused on why ESPN (and the NFL) are doing this now. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Frontline was planning to produce a documentary painting a quite dire picture of the impact of football-induced head trauma on the long-term health and well-being of football players. The NFL, from the beginning, would not make league officials, including Commissioner Roger Goodell, available to be interviewed. In spite of that hostility, ESPN’s own reporting on the issue, especially via OTL, has already portrayed the severity of the problem.

Perhaps the NFL’s growing anxiety about the film is an outgrowth of the advancing litigation currently before Federal Judge Anita Brody, who has ordered the parties to try to work out their differences through mediation and is expected to rule soon on an NFL motion to dismiss the suit. According to Raney Aronson-Rath, a deputy executive producer with Frontline, ESPN raised no complaints until about a week ago and that three members of the NFL’s Neck, Head and Spine committee (which replaced the old, discredited MTBI committee) had recently agreed to be interviewed on camera for League of Denial, before canceling. Dwayne Bray, the ESPN producer who was working with Frontline and, as recently as three weeks ago, was stilling touting the joint venture, reportedly told the demoralized staff at OTL that “Disney folks got involved and shut us down.”

Writing in the New York Times today, Miller and Ken Belson observed: “These kinds of skirmishes have been around for as long as companies have dabbled in both media and entertainment businesses. But the potential for conflicts are particularly acute at ESPN, which has tentacles throughout the sports world and whose mission is to cover sports that it actively promotes.” ESPN says it will continue to report the concussion story, and I have no doubt that it will. But the decision to stop working with Frontline, which ESPN execs have acknowledged “looks bad,” raises further questions about ESPN’s credibility as a news organization. To some, that very sentence may be worthy of little more than a dismissive chortle. But the fact is that ESPN prizes its credibility as, among other things, a news-gathering organization.

I did a search a little while ago at ESPN.com for “PBS” and a separate one for “Frontline.” I found zero hits reporting on ESPN’s pulling the plug (the searches did call up previous OTL pieces on concussions). That strikes me as pretty noteworthy, given that the news has gotten a ton of media attention in the past two days. It also highlights a potentially fundamental problem at the World Wide Leader: the prospect that the ability of the number one sports media organization in the world to report credibly on what could be the major sports story of the next decade – the long-term viability of the number one sport in America – will be fundamentally compromised. To a significant extent, ESPN has always been in la-la land about its ability to do news reporting while it also hocks the products its supposed to be covering evenhandedly. But the NFL concussion story may well prove to be the most serious blow to its self-image yet.

(I assume ESPN’s new ombudsman, the legendary sports writer Robert Lipsyte, will weigh in on all this at some point. But he hasn’t yet).

Update (August 26): Lipsyte has now written about the ESPN/Frontline issue and says he may write more, as circumstances warrant. His post headline asks: “Was ESPN sloppy, naive, or compromised?” Lipsyte says it’s “hard to argue” with the characterization of ESPN’s decision as encapsulating the “dueling journalism and profit motives.” And Lipsyte says that tension is “the major ongoing conflict that the ombudsman deals with.” ESPN’s president John Skipper reiterated to Lipsyte that no one at Disney or the NFL pressured ESPN to end the collaboration with PBS and that the issue was lack of editorial oversight. Dave Zirin, over at The Nation, has a piece up today quoting numerous ESPN sources who say that is laughable (Zirin gave anonymity to everyone at ESPN who spoke with him about this issue, which may been necessary but lessened the value of his piece, but one of his interlocutors had some interesting comments about self-censorship at the Mother Ship).

Whatever caused ESPN’s decision to pull out, Lipsyte wonders aloud: “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.” Lipsyte concludes that the decision may ultimately have been driven by “some clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence.”

I am not sure that Lipsyte is right about the ultimate impact on sales and promotion. If the documentary were to run this week, I have no doubt he’d be right. But it’s running several weeks from now and though there is a certain cachet in having been the story ESPN didn’t want you to hear, the absence of ESPN’s promotional muscle will certainly hurt.

ESPN will, as I’ve said previously, continue to report the concussion story. In a way, in fact, there will be even more pressure on it to do so now, given this recent decision. But the bigger question for me remains what happens at ESPN if the concussion crisis is no longer just a story, but becomes *the* story. That may never happen. But it might.

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