Tragic Game Raises Risk of Rift Between ESPN, NFL

Damar Hamlin Game Raises Risk of Rift Between ESPN, NFL
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

Just imagine how the most recent phone call between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro must have gone.

Goodell can’t be too happy about a bombshell ESPN article published Monday suggesting the NFL was looking to continue last week’s tragic “Monday Night Football” game despite the near-fatal injury sustained on the field by Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin. Though the league has emphatically denied this, there’s plenty of indication that the call to cancel was made not by the league but at the insistence of both the Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals.

One of ESPN’s announcers, Joe Buck, has even made clear in press interviews that his repeated on-air comments implying the game would resume came from league sources. (ESPN and NFL declined comment.)

It’s a bad look for the NFL, which has weathered its share of image-tarnishing controversies over the years. But what adds insult to injury here is the most damning evidence that the league demonstrated poor judgment and insensitivity comes from ESPN, whose parent company, Disney, pays the NFL $2.7 billion per year for the rights to Monday games. 

Pitaro can proudly stand by his company’s great journalism, but that’s not something Goodell likely appreciates. The NFL’s reputation is Goodell's biggest focus, and here comes one of his most important business partners to make him look bad. 

One of Pitaro’s highest priorities coming into the top job at ESPN in 2018 was to smooth over Disney’s relationship with the NFL, and he’s done that. But the risk of a flare-up is always there as long as ESPN has to navigate being both a partner to the league and a media outlet covering the league. That said, the Hamlin tragedy is far from the first tough article ESPN has done about the NFL in recent years, but it still may very well be the most unflattering.

Doesn’t that mean disaster lurks around the corner for ESPN? Not necessarily. It's certainly a good sign that ESPN was awarded the hotly anticipated Cowboys vs. Buccaneers game during Wild Card Weekend. And there’s no known pending rights deal between the two companies, like the recently completed pact with Google for Sunday Ticket. If there was, this kind of thing could disrupt the negotiations. 

But one must pay attention to every little thing that transpires between ESPN and the NFL, because what might seem relatively innocuous in the moment can become significant in the long run. The NFL is far and away the most important TV property in the U.S.

That said, neither entity has anything to be ashamed of here. ESPN’s coverage of the disrupted game was excellent, a tough assignment to pull off without any planning. And even the NFL is getting a bum rap: In the considerable confusion that ensued after Hamlin’s injury, it’s unrealistic to expect the league to have deftly handled such a chaotic situation.

If bruised egos are set aside, Goodell and Pitaro can keep this bump in the road in the rearview mirror. There’s too much at stake between their companies to raise a stink, but that hasn’t stopped even the most sensitive of media business battles from raging out of control in the past.