Roger Goodell pressured ESPN to pull out of concussion documentary, per report

Doug Pensinger

A heated meeting between the NFL and ESPN's top execs reportedly resulted in the network's decision to scrap its participation in a joint project with PBS examining the impact of concussions in the sport and the league's response.

PBS announced Thursday that ESPN was pulling out of a joint project between the two networks investigating concussions and the impact of head injuries in the NFL. ESPN insisted that the decision was not the result of pressure by the NFL. In contrast, a Friday report in the New York Times says that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell directly pressured ESPN to pull out of the project at a recent lunch meeting in Manhattan.

Goodell and NFL Network president Steve Bornstein met with ESPN president John Skipper and the network's executive vice president of production, John Wildhack last week. The Times report describes that meeting as "combative." Goodell and Bornstein laid out their displeasure with the documentary, "League of Denial," because it cast the NFL in a negative light, and as purposely ignoring the long-term impact of head trauma among players.

NFL officials were reportedly upset after seeing a trailer for the film, which ESPN's Outside the Lines and PBS' Frontline shows have been working on for more than a year.

On Aug. 18, Outside the Lines ran a report about Dr. Elliot Pellman, the league's controversial former point man for the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee. That report, part of the collaboration between ESPN and PBS, also revealed that Pellman was former commissioner Paul Tagliabue's personal physician. It also noted that Pellman was still an adviser to the NFL on the issue of concussions, something first reported by Sports on Earth earlier this year.

The NFL refused to participate in the documentary. Earlier this month, filmmaker Michael Kirk spoke openly about his crew's trouble getting information from the league, comparing the NFL to the CIA. Goodell and other league officials were not made available to the filmmakers.

ESPN first cited the lack of editorial control over the film as its reason for pulling out of the project. The network released the following statement:

Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the Frontline documentaries, there will be no co-branding involving ESPN on the documentaries or their marketing materials. The use of ESPN's marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control. As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting.

Both ESPN and the NFL denied that the league pressured the move, before and after the Times report.

The NFL released a statement that read (via John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal):

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.

ESPN said in a follow-up statement Friday morning:

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.

ESPN and the NFL have a 10-year, $1 billion annual deal for broadcast rights to Monday Night Football, the network's highest rated show. ESPN is owned by the Disney corporation, and one of its most profitable arms.

The NFL is currently in court-ordered mediation with more than 5,000 former players suing the league for negligence over the issue of head injuries. Mediation is due to wrap up in September. If no resolution is reached at the negotiating table, a Federal district judge will then rule whether or not to proceed with what could be a lengthy court case over the matter.

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