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The Biggest Bully: Even ESPN Cowers Before the NFL

"Frontline" announced Thursday that ESPN had quit a 15-month-old investigative partnership on head trauma in the NFL, about which we wrote, "I do not sense flagrantly foul play." But then on Friday...

If a new New York Times report is true, ESPN is worse than I imagined. James Andrew Miller—a well-sourced reporter, having co-written the ESPN oral history Those Guys Have All The Funreported this morning that ESPN’s decision to pull out of a 15-month-long collaborative investigation with the public television show “Frontline” into the National Football League’s (mis)handling of head trauma/brain damage issues was in fact driven by its relationship with the NFL—probably the most important of all its business relationships. Miller reports that last week, over lunch, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed his displeasure over the direction of the collaboration—which will culminate with an October documentary, League of Denial, on “Frontline”—to head ESPN honcho John Skipper. The “combative” meeting, Miller wrote, “led to” ESPN’s decision. The brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, both ESPN employees, are semi-relatedly publishing a book of the same name in October.

ESPN and the NFL deny it. “The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL,” said ESPN in an emailed statement. “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 probably nothing, but “concussions” are only a small part of the larger head trauma issue.) NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Miller, “At no time did we formally or informally ask them to divorce themselves from the project. We know the movie was happening and the book was happening, and we respond to them as best we can. We deny that we pressured them.” On Thursday, Aiello told me of the end of the collaboration, “We don’t know anything about it.” The Times' Richard Sandomir reported that the NFL "was not supportive of the documentary."

ESPN’s stated reason for withdrawing, as I reported Thursday, is that it did not have editorial control over the documentary. There are reasons to find this dubious. This had been the planned arrangement through 15 months of a fruitful partnership. Also, the Fainaru brothers, in many respects the instigators of the entire partnership (since it is centered around a book they are writing), are and remain ESPN employees.

At the same time, ESPN has been reporting on the head trauma issue and has said, credibly, that it will continue to do so. They have done other pieces critical of the NFL, including Don Van Natta Jr.’s “Outside The Lines” segment and ESPN: The Magazine article on Goodell. The Fainarus have said they believe they will continue to be able to pursue intense investigative journalism regarding the NFL.

If the Times report is true, it is baaaaaaaad.

Essentially, it is the worst nightmare every sports fan has: That ESPN—which you cannot avoid if you wish to follow sports—is corrupted on the journalism side by its relationships with the leagues.

To be sure, this is the most extreme example. You have very tough reporting that goes right to the heart of the NFL’s viability, as it confronts both a massive class action lawsuit brought by retired players accusing the league of not adequately protecting them from the effects of head trauma and a general climate of increasing skepticism toward whether football is an acceptable human activity. And you have probably ESPN’s most vital broadcasting partner, which after this season it will pay $1.9 billion a year through the 2021-2 season to broadcast the Monday night game, which is the most-watched program on cable, and in no small part responsible for the epically massive subscriber fees (more than $5 per subscriber per month) ESPN is able to extract.

And yet, the principle of journalistic integrity really isn’t one of those principles that admits compromise. If ESPN will bow to its most powerful broadcasting partner when it is doing its most lacerating journalism, we have no choice but to assume that it would cut other, lesser corners as well. What happens next time there is a National Basketball Association lockout? What happens when it’s concussions in hockey? More troubling still: What happens when it is not investigative journalism? Can ESPN be trusted to be fair-minded about soccer now that it is beefing up its soccer coverage (including with a new show) given that it broadcasts Major League Soccer? Or given that NBC is making its Premier League coverage more prominent? Or given that after the next World Cup (which will be on ESPN), that event will air on Fox, which just launched Fox Sports 1, a rival to ESPN? This is why the term “slippery slope” exists: Some slopes actually are very slippery. This is one of them.

And finally. The NFL. For a football fan like myself, this turn of events feels personal. It is entirely possible that the sport of football is unsalvageable, and if turns out to be, then so be it. But it is also entirely possible that the sport of football is salvageable if the authorities—from Pop Warner to the NCAA to, most of all, the NFL—display creativity, open-mindedness, conscience, and all the other adjectives you wouldn’t use to describe the current NFL.

The NFL has a business interest in not wanting revelations of the kind that the Fainarus are turning up—like that an underqualified rheumatologist was reportedly making major internal decisions about the handling of head trauma issues for the league—given that it may have to shell out big bucks one day to settle that class-action as a result. But that business interest is dwarfed by its business interest in having good reporting about head trauma and the league’s past mistakes in handling it, which could make the league more accountable and ultimately better at handling this existential issue going forward. It also has a business interest in not looking like it is trying to suppress reporting into the health issues of its employees.

The biggest threat to football’s long-term viability may not be the adverse consequences of playing the game for the players. The biggest threat to football’s long-term viability may be the grotesque mismanagement of this issue by the NFL itself.

This article has been updated.

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