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ESPN Casts a Critical Look at Its Meal Ticket: Football

On Friday, the investigative news show “Frontline” published a bombshell report on its website. Reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada (they’re brothers) revealed that more than a decade ago the National Football League retirement board awarded $2 million in disability benefits to former players who had suffered brain damage—despite the league’s public position, which it maintained until 2009, that it lacked evidence of football-sustained head trauma leading to permanent brain problems. (The NFL retirement board is not a part of the NFL, though half the board’s votes represent owners.) The report, which relied on previously undisclosed documents, could affect a current 4,000-member class action suit that essentially casts former players as smokers and the NFL as Big Tobacco.

The article, which drew an unusually high volume of traffic for a non-broadcast day by the standards of “Frontline,” was accompanied by an eight-minute video segment produced by the ESPN news magazine “Outside the Lines.” “The board’s rulings raise new questions about what the league knew, and when it knew it,” intones Fainaru-Wada in the clip. When I pressed “play” on the segment yesterday, there first came an advertisement for last night’s game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Chicago Bears—on ESPN.

How did we arrive at a place where two top journalists and an unimpeachable outlet like “Frontline” would join the purveyor of “SportsCenter” and “Monday Night Football” to investigate pigskin-related head trauma? Friday’s report was the first fruit of a year-long collaboration between “Frontline” and “Outside the Lines”—between a punching-above-its-weight show produced by the Boston public television network and ESPN, the $40 billion “World Wide Leader in Sports.” The Fainaru brothers—award-winning ESPN investigative reporters who have also covered non-sports subjects—will file similar reports over the following year, culminating in a “Frontline” documentary next October. (The brothers will also publish a book.) Their reporting could have an enormous impact on how (un)salvageable we consider the sport to be.

Yet they will be breaking another type of news as well: they will demonstrate to what extent ESPN will sponsor a critical look at its most lucrative business partner. The collaboration has the feel of a canary in the coal mine of the future of sports journalism. “My view on it was the proof will be in the pudding,” said Steve Fainaru. “Let’s just see how it goes.”

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Fewer and fewer media companies have the sheer resources to invest so much of such talented journalists’ time into a single investigative project, particularly in sports, long viewed as journalism’s “toy department.” Fainaru, for example, had been an investigative sports reporter at the Washington Post; after 9/11, he was assigned to national security and reported from Iraq, and his old slot was never filled.

ESPN is an exception that proves the rule, because it generates most of its revenue not through reporting but, instead, via highlights and original broadcasts. “ESPN operates in a parallel universe now, where they have shitloads of money and a real commitment to do this kind of work,” Fainaru explained. “It’s odd—my brother and I have talked about it—at ESPN we’re in the minority, but the people who are doing it are totally serious. There’s a total commitment to doing this kind of work.”

But at the heart of any discussion involving news and ESPN is the conflict of interest that arises when a company that relies overwhelmingly on broadcasting, spotlighting, and stoking interest in nearly every sport
—and so thoroughly dominates that space (an analyst recently noted of sports media, “Its one of the only industries where theres no number two”)must also report on those sports with journalistic rigor. “We’re the largest business partner for virtually every league,” acknowledged Vince Doria, ESPN’s director of news. “On the other hand I think we have the largest and, I’d like to believe, most aggressive news operation.” He insisted there is a true wall blocking ESPN’s newsgathering operations from the considerations that obsess people in other parts of the organization. “Despite these important business relationships, nobody has ever dictated to us what we can or can’t do,” he said. “All they’ve asked is we do our best to be accurate.”

ESPN has broken numerous stories that cast harsh lights on sports it broadcasts and highlights on “SportsCenter.” Fainaru-Wada, who won a George Polk Award in 2004 for a San Francisco Chronicle investigation into steroid abuse in baseball and other sports, helped break the news that 2011 National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun had tested positive for an illicit performance-enhancing drug, and did an “Outside the Lines” segment on a former lineman suing for workman’s compensation due to early-onset dementia. Former New York Times Pulitzer winner Don Van Natta, Jr. was dispatched to State College, Pennsylvania, in the wake of the Joe Paterno scandal. And when ESPN hired Fainaru earlier this year, it acquired a guy who won a Pulitzer for reporting on private security contractors in Iraq; it presumably did not expect gauzy profiles of lovable, over-performing relief pitchers from him. “Outside the Lines” has won Emmys; another show, “E:60,” regularly turns a more skeptical eye on the sports world.

But ESPN has also come under repeated critique for allegedly allowing its business imperatives to compromise its journalism. Only last week, for example, Deadspin’s John Koblin chronicled the network’s saturated coverage—not remotely justified by anything that was occurring on a football field—of backup New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow. Indeed professional football represents perhaps the largest elephant in the room: not only is it the most popular sport in the United States; Monday Night Football, which ESPN pays the NFL $1.1 billion (soon to be $1.9 billion) a year for the rights to broadcast, is the most-watched cable show. “If you look at our programming,” Doria told me, “you’ll see, particularly in season, ‘SportsCenter’ is being dominated by NFL coverage and to a slightly lesser degree college football coverage.” (Of various criticisms such as the Deadspin piece, Doria replied, “Having sport with ESPN has become a national pastime for some entities.”)

In that light, the “Frontline” collaboration looks like it could be a combination of a couple of different things.

To hear the principals, it’s a fun, fortuitous synergy of ESPN’s resources and reach with “Frontline”’s chops. The whole thing happened in part because Fainaru’s former editor at the Post and, before that, the Boston Globe, Phil Bennett, became the managing editor of “Frontline,” and Doria, a former Globe sports editor, is chummy with Bennett as well. “There’s a great story on our hands that we need to tell,” added Raney Aronson-Rath, the “Frontline” deputy executive producer. “They’re the obvious people to do it with.” In addition to the initial
“Outside the Lines” segment, the Fainarus made other stops on the legendary multimedia “Bristol Car Wash,” including a podcast and an excerpt on “SportsCenter.”

Doria argued that ESPN’s close relationships with the various leagues actually agitate in favor of reportorial accuracy. Yet it’s not hard to sense that the “Frontline” collaboration buys ESPN superficial credibility with critics who might otherwise question the sincerity of the 
Monday Night Football network’s probe of 50-year-old ex-linemen. “Whether or not it pays immediately quantifiable dividends, it’s a good association,” Doria said. More likely, tethering themselves to “Frontline” helps assure ESPN’s genuinely disinterested investigative reporters that they will get to carry out their work to the end. “‘Frontline’ wouldn’t partner with people we felt had special interests and weren’t clear-eyed in their journalism,” said Aronson-Rath. It’s extremely easy to believe her, and easy to believe that ESPN’s brass understood that when they signed off.

Still, the “Frontline”-ESPN collaboration is only one thing. It’s highly likely it won’t be the last. In an age of austerity in the media industry, the most expensive investigative projects may increasingly rely on outlets more interested in ginning up interest in the subject and less in muckraking for its own sake. Today it’s sports; tomorrow it could be entertainment, or finance, or government. “There’s a real appetite around all news related to the NFL,” observed Fainaru, “and I think the feeling is this is part of that.” The project seems like a much more viable model when you view it not as a prestige-absorbing loss leader but as one more instance of NFL programming, not dissimilar from the 
SportsCenter that immediately followed the replacement referee-botched Monday night game earlier this season and turned out to be the most-viewed SportsCenter ever. And it looks more viable still when you remember the cliche that may yet prove journalism’s salvation: If it bleeds, it leads.