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Report: NFL pressured ESPN to abandon PBS concussion project

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On Thursday, ESPN cut the cord on its much-hyped PBS Frontline partnership regarding concussions in pro football.  In so doing, ESPN denied that it had received any pressure from the NFL.

On Friday, of course, a report has emerged that the NFL did indeed pressure ESPN to quit biting the hand it’s currently feeding more than $1 billion per year.

According to James Andrew Miller of the New York Times, “two people with direct knowledge of the situation” contend that the NFL placed pressure on ESPN to exit the joint venture with PBS.  Per the report, Commissioner Roger Goodell was directly involved in the effort.

It’s the second time less than a decade that the league has pushed Bristol when it comes to football-related programming.  ESPN pulled the plug on the fictional show Playmakers based on clear and obvious nudging from the NFL.

“Everyone feels that it’s a rather gross mischaracterization of our sport,” former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said regarding Playmakers in September 2003.  Not long after that, the show was gone.

Given the Playmakers example and prior ESPN reports on head injuries, we should have seen this one coming.  Last November, ESPN recklessly overstated the relevance of past rulings of the league’s disability board regarding concussions, erroneously suggesting that the decisions provided a “smoking gun” for the concussion lawsuits.

The tipping point may have come this weekend, when Steve Fainaru and John Barr (whose flimsy-yet-breathless report last year regarding the Saints and wiretapping has never been corroborated) raised questions about Dr. Eliot Pellman, former head of the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee.  Apart from continuing to ignore that the NFLPA (and thus, necessarily, all players) had a seat at the MTBI Committee’s table, the article points out that Dr. Pellman was at one point Tagliabue’s physician — and argues that this undermines Pellman’s credibility.

It’s just as likely, however, that Pellman will seem even more credible in the eyes of any jury that ever resolves the concussion cases.  If the Commissioner was willing to entrust his own health to Pellman, then maybe Pellman wasn’t a complete quack.  The ESPN report doesn’t mention that fairly obvious possibility.

The relentless effort to dig up dirt, which arguably was on display in connection with Barr’s effort to join in the Saints feeding frenzy of 2012, prompted NFL spokesman Greg Aiello to accuse an ESPN reporter of “being on a witch hunt.”

If that’s what the NFL believed, it’s no surprise that the NFL communicated privately to ESPN a message similar to the one that was conveyed publicly by Tagliabue nearly 10 years ago.

That’s not to say an NFL broadcast partner should shy away from criticism.  Even though we partner with NBC, we’ve previously pushed the league on flaws regarding the in-game procedures for spotting players who may have had concussions and properly assessing whether they should return to play.  To this day, the league has failed in our opinion to do enough to identify players with potential concussions and thoroughly examine them before letting them play again.  But there’s a difference between fair criticism and over-the-top twisting of facts in the hopes of advancing an agenda.

The November 2012 report regarding the disability awards and the more recent look at Dr. Pellman feel more like a gratuitous exercise in “gotcha,” and not a balanced examination of reality.  For that reason, it’s hard to fault the NFL for asking ESPN why it would treat a business partner this way.

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53 Responses to “Report: NFL pressured ESPN to abandon PBS concussion project”
  1. subpop360 says: Aug 23, 2013 9:29 AM

    This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. ESPN is not a sports news station, rather a marketing machine controlled by the various leagues. ESPN needs a competitor – a station that has no biases and is able to actually report freely.

  2. apm says: Aug 23, 2013 9:33 AM

    Pay no attention to the Shield behind the curtain!!!

  3. 16to87 says: Aug 23, 2013 9:35 AM

    Keep it up ESPN,PFT,Goodell et all, your so called investigating reporting(smear campaign) rule tinkering is turning the game into unwatchable crap, you happy now?

  4. wtfchiefs says: Aug 23, 2013 9:36 AM

    “Move along, nothing to see here folks.”

    -The NFL

  5. hakunamangata says: Aug 23, 2013 9:36 AM

    Wait so you’re saying that massive human beings colliding into one another over a three hour period might be damaging?

    Don’t think Elmo and PBS needed to get involved in that one, but nice to see Mr. Player safety himself Rodger Goodell kill a study that might help them.

    Hey Rodger tell me again about player safety being your biggest concern, especially when you lobby for 18 games a season.

  6. kd75 says: Aug 23, 2013 9:37 AM

    PBS is partnered with CBS, not ABC. Frontline and 60 Minutes are practically a joint venture.

  7. honkeyt says: Aug 23, 2013 9:40 AM

    Good. This is way out of hand. I personally have heard enough. These players know what’s on the line when they GET PAID to play this GAME. NFL, just do the best you can and let this crap go. If I wanted flag football I would go watch some church nerds play.

  8. rc33 says: Aug 23, 2013 9:45 AM

    “two people with direct knowledge of the situation”

    The media is so compromised and discredited at this point, I’ve no reason to trust or believe either side.

  9. questionableprovenance says: Aug 23, 2013 9:45 AM

    Is this kind of “journalism” by ESPN the reason Randy Moss doesn’t want to be called a member of the media?

  10. bucrightoff says: Aug 23, 2013 9:45 AM

    ESPN proved they were a pushover when they got rid of Playmakers, even though now Playmakers seems pretty tame to the real stuff NFL players get themselves involved in.

  11. Robinson says: Aug 23, 2013 9:46 AM

    Why no mention of the fact that Pellmanwas a rheumatologist authoring reports on brain trauma?

  12. green41563 says: Aug 23, 2013 9:48 AM

    This is the same sort of structural conflict that happened when they repealed Glass-Steagall and allowed commercial banks to merge with investment banks. Suddenly, you had two businesses with obvious conflicts of interest operating under the same roof. How could brokers render honest investment opinions about a company’s stock when the bank at which they worked had underwritten the same stock? Same thing here. Along the way, ESPN abandoned the business of COVERING the NFL and got into the business of BROADCASTING the NFL. Once that happened, ESPN’s revenue became so inextricably linked with the fortunes of the league that it lost journalistic credibility on the subject. They’ve sold out journalism for content.

  13. shackdelrio says: Aug 23, 2013 9:50 AM

    Who is surprised by this? Goodell is the new Don Corleone. And ESPN is not about journalism.

  14. jrebar88 says: Aug 23, 2013 9:51 AM

    Dictator Goodell, this isnt North Korea. Get out of the NFL now, the fans do not want you running the best league in America.

  15. jayhawk6 says: Aug 23, 2013 9:53 AM

    “…ESPN denied that it had received any pressure from the NFL.”

    Yeah, right. There is nothing incestuous or CYA about that statement

  16. atb12333 says: Aug 23, 2013 9:54 AM

    It’s “gotcha” to point out that a rheumatologist who went to medical school in Guadalajara, mexico (and later lied that he didn’t) has played a significantly large role in the NFL’s handling of player head trauma over the last 15 years?

    It’s “gotcha” to point out that this same doctor tried to force a retraction of a paper that claimed Mike Webster suffered from severe brain trauma?

    It’s “gotcha” to point out that this same doctor was team physician of the Jets and head of the NFL concussion committee at the same time and this might be a conflict of interest?

    Is this a joke?

  17. skoobyfl says: Aug 23, 2013 9:57 AM

    Dirty little secrets.

  18. evilglazers666 says: Aug 23, 2013 10:01 AM

    The NFL is sickening. I cannot believe they would pressure ESPN out of partnering with a non-profit organization that was about player safety. The owners and Goodell have let us all down.

  19. smashscott says: Aug 23, 2013 10:01 AM

    The NFL & Roger Goodell are made out to be the bad guys…the bad guys are the lawyers and ex-players that are trying to sue and bring down the NFL.

  20. andrejohnsonforpresident says: Aug 23, 2013 10:02 AM

    I would love to see whom ever ESPN reports to at Disney and if anyone at Disney has any actual say about the programming that ESPN puts out. Considering Football is probably ESPN’s biggest thing. You would have to imagine that Disney has some sort of say in how ESPN should go about their work regarding that sport.

  21. cajunaise says: Aug 23, 2013 10:03 AM

    It’s difficult to weed through genuine mistrust of the media vs. using that excuse as a way to dismiss stories one doesn’t like.

    I agree that trusting the media without critical scrutiny is a bad idea. The same could be said of trusting the motives of anonymous internet commentators.

  22. bisonaudit says: Aug 23, 2013 10:05 AM

    All you need to know about this is that the name of the committee studying head injuries for the league (and the players association) is called the MILD Traumatic Brain Injury Committee.

  23. dryzzt23 says: Aug 23, 2013 10:08 AM

    The Federal govt does the same thing, especially the Czars of the NSA, FBI, EPA, and HHS but it is never reported by the left-wing “news” outlets.
    IMO the NFL is trying to protect its product, there is nothing wrong with that, and PBS (paid for by taxpayers) is in the business of villifying “corporations”.

    Good job Roger! Protect the shield at all costs!

  24. hoboken says: Aug 23, 2013 10:09 AM

    I had to read this article twice to make sure I was understanding this correctly. Are you actually justifying the NFL’s actions and ESPN’s response? That’s absurd! This isn’t just some one-off reporter trying to make a name. This is a PBS Frontline documentary, an organization that has won 15 Peabody Awards. This is the NFL saying, “Hey, you want to do biz with us ESPN in the future? Pull this doc.” And ESPN folded like a lawn chair.

    Btw, your point about Pullman is absurd. Pullman specialized in rheumatology (basically the study of immunology). He either had none or very little previous experience on brain research before he was appointed to led the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. That’s just a pure lack of qualifications for the job. To use an example close to home for you Florio, I’m a lawyer as well and I know how to draft and negotiate entertainment contracts. But that in no way makes me qualified to handle a medical malpractice lawsuit. It’s not that Pullman (or me) is a quack; rather, it’s that he didn’t have the qualifications for the job he was given.

  25. boyshole25 says: Aug 23, 2013 10:10 AM

    Frontline is a great show unbiased reporting at its finest

  26. tinbender2000 says: Aug 23, 2013 10:17 AM

    You may not think that Pellman or that other err, doctor that kept putting their feet in their mouths weren’t quacks but if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck……..

  27. sb44champs says: Aug 23, 2013 10:17 AM

    Per the report, Commissioner Roger Goodell was directly involved in the effort.
    ========================
    Surprise, surprise… The same guy that dismantled one of the most recently successful franchises in the Saints just to prove a point against the concussion lawsuits……

  28. fwby4life says: Aug 23, 2013 10:25 AM

    You have to be kidding with this crap. The fact that the NFL is controlling what’s be reported is unexceptble. They don’t like there corrupted business practice be braught to light. When I watched the OSL piece on the so called doctor. First thought was WOW the NFL is going to get what they deserve. Finally!!
    There is a HUGE problem about how this lawsuits are being reported. Players are not doing this because there I injured. They are doing this because the League took there right to make there own choice. They had a physician that had no background In head injurys and a system wide program set up to discredit players with claims. As in everything it’s about money. The NFL and there Inshurance companies dont care about plauers getting hurt. They are trying to make sure they would not have to give players a pention and medical care that they need given how brutal the sport is. All these players know they are gonna get hurt. But when they do take care of them. Nothing but Greed!

  29. nflpoker says: Aug 23, 2013 10:42 AM

    How can anyone take a sports media organization like ESPN seriously if they employ Stephen A. and Skip Bayless? It would be great if there was another sports media that could give ESPN competition, one that was much more credible.

  30. fordwuzanazi says: Aug 23, 2013 10:44 AM

    This is how corporate America controls the message of all media outlets. Money is power and influence in this country and the more you have the more your power over the news gets exerted. Its been going on for decades time to recognize it.

  31. gettingpwned says: Aug 23, 2013 10:51 AM

    I needed an article to tell me this? This was the first thing I thought of when I saw the headline yesterday. Duh. It’s like the press covering the white house. If you play nice, you get better access. But if you bite the hand that feeds…

  32. dadawg77 says: Aug 23, 2013 10:53 AM

    This is just the NFL reacting to its biggest threat, head trauma. The movie United States of Football opens up this weekend and is structured around the question, why would I allow my son to play football. Just the fact that parents are starting to ask this question more and more is a major threat to the NFL. If youth football becomes less popular parents and less kids play then NFL will become much less popular. It seems like as much as the NFL will fight it, it is only a downhill for the sport from here on out.

    The only way to survive or not leave the peak is to change. One thing we might see is pro game move away from 11-11 to something like 7-7 with the theory that more space means less vicious hits. Also less players may help compensation is the revenue pool gets smaller.

  33. oimakkamio says: Aug 23, 2013 10:55 AM

    “what PBS? What ESPN? Never even heard of them.” Roger Goodells next press conference. “But we did fine Ndamukong Suh $50,000, for taking a dump with out a Toilet Paper Seat Cover this week. We protect our players.”

  34. oimakkamio says: Aug 23, 2013 10:56 AM

    In other news, Bud Selig called to question the NFL’s HGH testing program.

  35. nflpoker says: Aug 23, 2013 10:57 AM

    Question:

    Which one do you trust the least?

    1) ESPN
    2) the NFL
    3) anonymous sources
    4) all of the above

  36. wecomefromthestars says: Aug 23, 2013 10:57 AM

    Bravo to Mike Florio for continuing his great work.

    Don’t ever stop, Mike. Articles like this are why we love you.

  37. nolagirl says: Aug 23, 2013 11:04 AM

    I don’t see how tapping Tagliabue’s personal “Long Island rheumatologist” to head up the league’s concussion research is going to bolster credibility; wouldn’t his personal neurologist be better suited for the position?

    On a related note, John Barr’s “Outside the Lines” really should be renamed “Beyond the Pale.”

  38. mogogo1 says: Aug 23, 2013 11:08 AM

    I know the NFL is made of money, but these concussion lawsuits are going to be HUGE. And it sure doesn’t help them getting caught trying to stop people from looking into the problem.

  39. vgferenzi says: Aug 23, 2013 11:08 AM

    No one cares. People here will all gripe and moan and say they care…but they don’t. Everyone loves to feel indignant, and they love to take swipes at the NFL, but at the end of the day it’s their business and they can run it the way they want. There isn’t a single person here who will change the way they consume NFL or ESPN in their entirety and there isn’t a single person here who will boycott the sponsors…so quit whining.

  40. tabcdef9 says: Aug 23, 2013 11:33 AM

    green41563 says: Aug 23, 2013 9:48 AM

    “This is the same sort of structural conflict that happened when they repealed Glass-Steagall and allowed commercial banks to merge with investment banks. Suddenly, you had two businesses with obvious conflicts of interest operating under the same roof. How could brokers render honest investment opinions about a company’s stock when the bank at which they worked had underwritten the same stock? Same thing here. Along the way, ESPN abandoned the business of COVERING the NFL and got into the business of BROADCASTING the NFL. Once that happened, ESPN’s revenue became so inextricably linked with the fortunes of the league that it lost journalistic credibility on the subject. They’ve sold out journalism for content.”

    Best comment I’ve seen covering serious conflicts in two significant industries. Well done green41563!

  41. mychode says: Aug 23, 2013 11:34 AM

    “Playmakers” was indeed a mischaracterization of the sport: no player in the show murdered anyone.

  42. sdelmonte says: Aug 23, 2013 11:42 AM

    Frontline has shown itself time and again to be accurate with its reporting, and fairly level-headed. When it’s being sensational, the news itself is the sensation. If they report something, I tend to believe it.

  43. granadafan says: Aug 23, 2013 11:45 AM

    The reason is the billion dollar concussion lawsuit. Goodell and his mafia hitmen of lawyers are flexing their muscle. It’s no surprise. They’ve been stealing from the taxpayers for decades, and now they’re pushing around ESPN who pays the “non-profit” NFL a billion for broadcast rights.

  44. theuglitruth says: Aug 23, 2013 11:54 AM

    ESPN will still lead all of the sheep (fans) to slaughter…business as usual.

  45. ratsfoiledagain says: Aug 23, 2013 12:18 PM

    Everyone here wants Goodell out. You want him out? Go after the owners. They’re his boss. They granted him powers to promote, protect, and make as much money as possible, for their brand, the NFL. That’s the only way he’s out, if you get a majority of the owners to believe he is no longer the right person for the job.

  46. tarheel723 says: Aug 23, 2013 12:46 PM

    I’ll be honest, I dislike ESPN just as much as the next guy (I hate how they completely overdo things like Puig, Tebow, Manziel, even my Skins QB RGIII). But, I dislike the administrative offices of the NFL even less. It’s gotten to the point where they’re just a big bully. Fining people anywhere from $10,000-$100,000 for a shirt or hat or just wearing something that’s not Nike, not letting guys have any fun on the field after a big play, making people take a class to be allowed back into the game after they’ve been deemed too drunk, and not letting women bring their purses into games. And now this. They’re bullying networks to do their bidding. Concussions are a SERIOUS PROBLEM. And I guess no one can talk about it, other than say CNN since their networks don’t have anything to do with the NFL. If the CBS Evening news talks about it, maybe they won’t be allowed to carry the AFC games anymore, if MSNBC talks about it, maybe Sunday Night Football will be moved, and if FOX News talks about it, well NFC games will be moved. They’re just big bullies. And what’s sad is they’re focusing on not having people hit too low or too high because if they implement those, injuries will be “impossible” in the NFL (*sarcasm). It’s always been a physical game and injuries are going to happen. But what they need to be focusing on is how to prevent concussions besides for just rule changes. Better helmet technology, which is out there by the way, just Google it, better awareness on how to hit correctly (besides for just the Heads Up for kids), even with current NFL players I’ve seen it done wrong, etc. If anything they need to be LISTENING and WATCHING these programs that ESPN has been running, instead of just trying to hide the problem. I get that they want to defend themselves in the suits, but at the same time they need to do something instead of just bullying people who do speak up.

  47. hairpie says: Aug 23, 2013 12:48 PM

    I’m suprised ESPN is still in business after their humiliating coverage of “Spygate” admitting to coaching up former players to say certain things and the non existant “Matt Walsh walk through tapes.”

    They do indeed need some competition. That company is as biased as any i’ve ever seen.

  48. condor75 says: Aug 23, 2013 1:04 PM

    honkeyt says:
    Aug 23, 2013 9:40 AM
    Good. This is way out of hand. I personally have heard enough. These players know what’s on the line when they GET PAID to play this GAME. NFL, just do the best you can and let this crap go. If I wanted flag football I would go watch some church nerds play.
    you know driving a car is dangerous, that does not mean there isnt an obligation from manufactures to make the care as safe as possible, what a stupid statement, not mention why is NFL so afraid of truth? Maybe you just want to make sure the spread is covered

  49. northeastkiller says: Aug 23, 2013 1:12 PM

    Whether it’s “Playmakers” or Bountygate or this, if it’s an issue that can make the NFL look bad, like liars, or potentially cost them money in a concussion lawsuit, if you think ESPN does anything other than take marching orders from the NFL and lick Goodell’s feet, you’re on drugs.

  50. bigbenh8tr says: Aug 23, 2013 1:23 PM

    16to87 says:
    Aug 23, 2013 9:35 AM
    Keep it up ESPN,PFT,Goodell et all, your so called investigating reporting(smear campaign) rule tinkering is turning the game into unwatchable crap, you happy now?
    —————————————–
    As someone who has recovered/always recovering from a TBI you can never understand how frustrating these sort of comments are and really sums up how the NFL put ITSELF in this situation. I would say something negative about you and your education but its obvious majority of america is clueless when it comes to brain injuries.

    Just like James Harrison doesn’t think the media like hard knocks deserves to be in the locked room, you don’t deserve to share your opinions on this topic. Only survivors family member of them, and doctors have a clue what is going on here.

    You should be embarrassed that you think you are ENTITLED to view this game for entertainment despite what it can do to someones life. Its not just CTE that makes problem s and discussing that I believe takes away from the simple research behind TBIs but I guess the NFL and media won’t care unless we can get a catchy researched definition that will scare people.

  51. 64post says: Aug 23, 2013 1:42 PM

    Aug 23, 2013 9:50 AM
    Who is surprised by this? Goodell is the new Don Corleone. And ESPN is not about journalism.
    Got that right. ESPN is the pimp that tout’s the teams close to it…

  52. tellingphatstories says: Aug 23, 2013 1:45 PM

    PBS instead of Tickle Me Elmo dolls should make Tickle My Feet Rex Ryan dolls.

  53. toddm1016 says: Aug 23, 2013 3:37 PM

    Funny, but everything that happened in Playmakers has taken form in the NFL, except for the player that came out publicly, or rather was forced to come out.

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