ESPN Abandons ‘Frontline’ NFL Head-Injury Investigation

Disney sports net says branding issues at stake, but split could raise questions about its journalistic cred

ESPN has exited a long-running investigation into the response of the National Football League to various head injuries suffered over the years by its players that  the sports-cable network was pursuing with PBS’s “Frontline” news program, senior “Frontline” producers said in a dispatch posted online Thursday.

The two parties’ investigation has been running for 15 months, and the work has spawned a web site, “Concussion Watch,” that tracks and analyzes officially reported head injuries in the NFL, as well as a two-part investigation called “League of Denial” expected to air on PBS in the fall – just as the NFL’s season is getting underway.

“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,” read a statement from “Frontline” executive producer David Fanning and deputy executive producer Raney Aronson posted on PBS’ web site.

The move is sure to raise the usual questions about ESPN’s ability to feature independent, hard-hitting sports journalism when so much of its business hinges on its ability to secure rights to televise big sporting events and gain access to top athletes. ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” a weekly telecast of an NFL game, is a top TV draw and, owing to its ratings, one of the most expensive programs on which to advertise. What’s more, ESPN’s ability to show top-tier sports is a big reason why its is able to charge cable and satellite distributors the most hefty subscriber fees in the business, said to be around $5.54 per subscriber per month, according to SNL Kagan.

The issue has surfaced in the past. In 2010, for example, ESPN allowed LeBron James, who now plays for the Miami Heat, to choose one of his interviewers for a special interview in which he would name the next team for which he would play. The broadcast was sure to generate ratings, but the ground the network had to cede for the “get” was surprising.

“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,” the network, owned by Walt Disney and Hearst Corp., said in a prepared statement. “: As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting.” An ESPN spokesman said the network had aired a report on concussions in recent days and would continue to investigate serious issues raised by the various sports leagues with which it does business.

Indeed, ESPN has covered the effects of concussions on athletes dating back to 2006, with reports appearing in ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.  The reports included a November, 2006, magazine investigation of  Dr. Elliot Pellman, then chairman of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which exposed dubious research and behavior.

The history makes the Wednesday split surprising.  According to the Frontline producers, ESPN had already jointly published and co-branded “several ground-breaking articles” about head injuries on the web or via reports on ESPN’s broadcasts with the PBS program. “We’ve been in sync on the goals of our reporting: to present the deepest accounting so far of the league’s handling of questions around the long-term impact of concussions,” the producers said in their statement. “This editorial partnership was similar to our many other collaborations with news organizations over the years.”

“Frontline’s” reporting on the issue has been led by two ESPN journalists, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, who are brothers.

The producers said the coming two-hour documentary would not be affected by ESPN’s decision, and said the Fainaru brothers would continue to take part  in the production and be featured in the documentary.

The film, they said, is still being edited, and ESPN executives were “on schedule” to see it and offer editorial input. Now the sports-network will have to watch it in October, and see if it merits coverage at that time.

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