Mentioned in the report that the NFL pressured ESPN to abandon its concussion project with PBS, but hardly highlighted, is the league’s position that no pressure was applied.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello reiterated in an email to PFT that the league did not pressure ESPN to abandon the effort.
“It is not true that we pressured ESPN to pull out of the film,” Aiello said. “The lunch was requested several weeks ago by ESPN. We meet with our business partners on a regular basis and this was not unusual.”
The lunch reportedly occurred between Commissioner Roger Goodell, outgoing NFL Network chief Steve Bornstein, ESPN president John Skipper, and ESPN executive V.P. for production John Wildhack.
Still, it’s hard not to think that the NFL put the squeeze on ESPN — especially since short-timer Bornstein, a former ESPN president, attended the sit-down. Ten years ago, the league had no qualms about openly calling for ESPN to dump Playmakers. With ESPN engaged in concussion-related journalism that, at times, seems a little over the top or simply inaccurate, there’s nothing wrong with the NFL being concerned, and there’s nothing wrong with the NFL expressing those concerns.
Of course, the outcome arguably makes ESPN look worse than the league — if pressure was indeed applied. Critics will say that ESPN should have a firewall between its journalistic enterprises and its business interests. If ESPN shuttered a journalistic operation due to business concerns, that’s a potential problem.
Maybe the truth is that neither the NFL nor ESPN management were comfortable with journalism that at times wasn’t balanced or fair. Last November, for example, ESPN journalists tried to paint a 14-year-old disability award to Mike Webster as proof that the league knew all about the dangers of mild brain injuries long before the NFL admitted to having such knowledge and acting on it. ESPN called it a “smoking gun,” but it was neither smoking nor a gun — especially since the NFLPA (i.e., the players) had a direct role in the disability process and, in turn, awareness of the ruling and, necessarily, the chronic risks of concussions.
Regardless, ESPN and the NFL deny that pressure was placed on ESPN. The New York Times contends otherwise. Most people likely will believe the New York Times report, because it makes sense that the NFL would have concerns — and it makes sense given ESPN’s past willingness to pull the plug on the popular Playmakers show that ESPN would find a plausible path away from its PBS partnership.