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ESPN Backs Out Of Brain Injury Documentary After NFL Pressure


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. As a television network, ESPN pays billions of dollars to sports leagues for the right to show their games, but its reporters also cover those leagues. Those two roles came into conflict this week when ESPN announced it is pulling out of a project investigating the concussion crisis in the National Football League. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays. Hey there, Stefan.


CORNISH: So give us some background on this story. How did this project get started?

FATSIS: Well, last year, two ESPN reporters, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, his brother, contracted to write a book about brain injuries and the NFL. An editor friend of theirs at the PBS series "Frontline" suggested doing a documentary around their reporting. ESPN liked the idea and offered to partner on the topic. The reporters wrote a bunch of tough pieces on the websites of ESPN and "Frontline." They did TV stories on ESPN. Their book and a two-part "Frontline" documentary are due out in October. The title of both is "League of Denial." Clearly not flattering to the NFL.

CORNISH: Ok. So it sounds like it's on the up and up, pretty high-level journalistic collaboration. What went wrong?

FATSIS: Well, first, there was a great collaboration. Mark Fainaru-Wada co-authored a book about Barry Bonds and the infamous Balco clinic. Steve Fainaru won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting for The Washington Post about private security contractors in Iraq. Full disclosure, I do know these guys professionally. But that they work for ESPN is a credit to the company's journalistic ambitions. So was the partnership with "Frontline," which is known for its sober public affairs investigations. But ESPN has this other side, its relationship with the leagues. And it looks as if that's what finally tripped up this project.

CORNISH: Right, The New York Times reported today that ESPN was pressured by the NFL to drop out of the documentary.

FATSIS: Yeah, according to that report, two ESPN executives met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the head of the league's own TV network. The Times described the meeting as combative. It said that the NFL executives conveyed their displeasure over the direction of the documentary. The NFL denies pressuring the network. My understanding is that the NFL's concerns ratcheted up at learning the title of the film and seeing a trailer that included a doctor saying she was worried that every football player might suffer long-term brain damage.

ESPN pays the NFL more than $1 billion a year to show "Monday Night Football." This is a very important business for ESPN. Its executives, maybe the ones at the parent company, Walt Disney, want to protect that relationship.

CORNISH: And in this case, I guess that meant cutting ties with the documentary.

FATSIS: Yeah. ESPN said it didn't want its name or logos used on the movie because it didn't control the editorial content. This is pretty laughable because that was the deal with "Frontline" all along. Each company controlled what appeared on its website or its network. Anyway, I'm told that the two sides had a great working relationship. ESPN in fact was about to see a cut of the film so that it could offer input. So this about-face wasn't about the quality of the collaboration. ESPN had in fact been praising that. It's about ESPN being able to tell the NFL that it didn't produce this documentary, and that it did something to placate the league.

CORNISH: Even though ESPN reporters are involved in making the film?

FATSIS: Look, they're all over the film. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru are in the film. There are other ESPN reporters quoted in the film. And that's the troubling thing here. ESPN is looking for cover on the business side of its dealings with the NFL, but it says it's not backing down on the journalism side. This afternoon, ESPN's president, John Skipper, issued a statement pledging to continue to report this story and continue to support the work of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.

So is ESPN trying to have its cake and eat it too here? Let's just say it will be interesting to see whether it promotes its reporters' book and reports on the "Frontline" documentary or if it backs away.

CORNISH: Stefan, thank you.

FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis, he's the author of "A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL." He joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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