Sports network ESPN have had stand-out successes in their history (and in particular over recent years) with a line of documentary films on sport (namely the 30 for 30 series), but one that will not be joining their collection is PBS Frontline collaboration League of Denial, a piece aiming to investigate the reaction to concussions by top-level american football league the NFL (National Football League).
First announced as a PBS/ESPN joint production in November, League of Denial was planned to be a franchise of investigation looking at the topic through a documentary as well as reports through both broadcaster’s websites and a book co-written by ESPN writers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.
However, it appears now as though the dedicated sports broadcasters will not be participating in the project despite 9 months of planning and their attatchment naturally being a key draw to any plans PBS may have had.
An explanation given by the sports network in their public statement on the matter on Thursday (22 August) was fairly inconclusive, noting: “Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the Frontline documentaries, there will be no co-branding involving ESPN on the documentaries or their marketing materials. The use of ESPN’s marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control. As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting.”
That statement will naturally not convince many people, with the popular belief being that the NFL intervened on account of ESPN’s broadcasting deal with them (one worth $15.2b), although the league have automatically taken a defensive stance, with spokesman Greg Aiello stating: “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.”
External reactions to the withdrawal have been negative, with The New York Times reporting of a meeting that NFL executives held with their ESPN counterparts a fortnight ago: “At the combative meeting, the people said, league officials conveyed their displeasure with the direction of the documentary, which is expected to describe a narrative that has been captured in various news reports over the past decade:
the league turning a blind eye to evidence that players were sustaining brain trauma on the field that could lead to profound, long-term cognitive disability.”
As the most extreme comments toward the NFL have seen them branded ‘conspicuously evil’, it remains to be seen whether the documentary will make it to air and what the reactions will be from the three main parties, so the current question is whether the NFL would be vindicated in protecting themselves against slander, or if the accusations surrounding the league’s handling of concussions in the sport would be fair. On a related note, the level of protection players recieve in american football, discuss: