Did the NFL Pressure ESPN to Exit Its Documentary Project?

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ESPN — owned by Walt Disney Co. (NYSE:DIS) — ended its partnership with Frontline on Thursday amidst mounting pressure from the National Football League. The public affairs television series was only weeks from premiering a two-part investigative report surrounding the NFL’s handling of head injuries, the New York Times reports.

Two sources for the NY Times with direct knowledge of the situation said that the NFL recently voiced its displeasure about the documentary at a lunch involving both NFL and ESPN executives. The members of the lunch allegedly included Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner; Steve Bornstein, the president of the NFL Network; John Skipper, president of ESPN; and John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production.

The two sources told the NY Times that the lunch was highly contentious, as NFL officials were vocally displeased with the documentary’s content, which revolves around the theory that the NFL ignored evidence over the past decade that proved players were acquiring brain trauma leading to long-term cognitive problems. The NFL denied any involvement in ESPN’s decision, and ESPN stated that it ended the partnership with Frontline due to issues over editorial control.

The situation highlights the complicated position that ESPN finds itself in, as it straddles the line between entertainment and journalism. In the battle between these two facets of sports networks, entertainment usually wins out, and leagues such as the NFL know this.

“The climate right now surrounding all sports and to some degree journalism is muddied because there is so much competition for content, so any dividing line between editorial and content is blurred,” Robert Boland, who teaches sports management at New York University, explained.

ESPN’s newsroom executives believe that the situation could ultimately push top journalists away if their work were to be compromised by the relationship with the most popular sports leagues. According to the NY Times, a staffer on ESPN’s investigative team called ESPN’s decision regarding Frontline “demoralizing to the people who remain at ‘Outside the Lines.’ The staffer also explained that Dwayne Bray, senior coordinating producer of ESPN’s news gathering team, told ESPN staff last week that “Disney folks got involved and shut us down.”

This recent situation between ESPN and the NFL comes at a time when the NFL is falling under increasing scrutiny for the way in which it has handled reports of head injuries in the last decade. The NFL is currently involved in a legal dispute with over 4,000 retired players who allege that the NFL has concealed both the danger and evidence of head trauma for years.

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