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ESPN pulls out of 'Frontline' documentary on NFL concussions

PBS announced Thursday that ESPN would no longer be participating in the "League of Denial" project.

Allison Joyce

ESPN President John Skipper spoke to me Wednesday about achieving a balance between being a rightsholder for a league and producing sometimes negative coverage of the same league. The network made an interesting decision Thursday afternoon that one can't help but look at as a move on the "rightsholder" side of things.

Two weeks ago, PBS made public its plans to produce a documentary from Frontline called League of Denial. The film would be done in cooperation with ESPN's Outside the Lines. The movie is controversial for its critical look at the National Football League, which has not cooperated with the film whatsoever, on the issue of former players' health problems, particularly pertaining to concussions. Thursday, PBS announced that ESPN would remove itself from all involvement with League of Denial.

You may notice some changes to our League of Denial and Concussion Watch websites. From now on, at ESPN's request, we will no longer use their logos and collaboration credit on these sites and on our upcoming film League of Denial, which investigates the NFL's response to head injuries among football players.

We don't normally comment on investigative projects in progress, but we regret ESPN's decision to end a collaboration that has spanned the last 15 months and is based on the work of ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, as well as FRONTLINE's own original journalism.

A spokesman for ESPN offered 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.

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.

This is obviously a serious, deliberate move by ESPN. Filmmaker Michael Kirk said at the Television Critics Association press tour in early August that the NFL has been as difficult to deal with as the CIA was for other Frontline documentaries. "They obviously don't want to talk about it and it's too bad, because it's a huge, huge problem," Kirk said. Said senior ESPN writer Steve Fainaru, whose work on the documentary is based on: "They did not cooperate. They [the NFL] are being sued by one third of the players dealing with this issue."

Still, ESPN had gone through with the film, with coordinating producer Dwayne Bray defending his network's coverage of the concussion issue just a couple of weeks ago:

"Our journalism has been very strong on this issue, so strong that we partner with Frontline!" he said. "Frontline is the gold standard for long-form documentaries... ESPN and other media entities are being educated as well. I think we've shown a lot of restraint especially in recent years, in showing the big hits... We don't show any of that footage willy-nilly. There is a lot of thought and discussion that goes into our highlights."

Coincidentally, I asked ESPN President John Skipper if he was disappointed about the NFL's lack of participation in the documentary (as well as the network's coverage of the concussion issue) just Wednesday. Here are his words:

We pride ourselves on being able to manage the balance between being in business with the leagues and doing journalism, and this is a prime example where we have been pursuing the story, and I think rather smartly. From Peter Keating in [ESPN] the Magazine, the Fainaru brothers on Outside the Lines, I think a lot of the best investigation and reporting on this issue have been on ESPN. We'll continue to do that.

We always make our platforms available for the leagues to comment. We understand, sometimes, they don't believe that's the right thing for them to do. I don't really have a point of view that I'm disappointed or not when they don't. I'm much more committed to our making sure that if they want to comment, they can, and they do. We have the commissioners of all the leagues on all of our platforms. But those are hard jobs, and they're figuring out what they're trying to do there.

I do believe the league is moving towards trying to resolve. That's a tough problem.

UPDATE: ESPN has, on Friday, added a statement from John Skipper:

We have been leaders in reporting on the concussion issue, dating back to the mid-1990s. Most recently, we aired a lengthy, thorough, well-reported segment on Outside the Lines on Sunday, and re-aired it Tuesday.

I want to be clear about ESPN's commitment to journalism and the work of our award-winning enterprise team. We will continue to report this story and will continue to support the work of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.

We have respect as well for the efforts of the people at Frontline.

League of Denial premieres Oct. 8.