The NFL has another PR disaster on its hands

Already under fire its handling of head trauma in football, the league has now reportedly pressured ESPN to quit probing player concussions

(Image credit: LUCY NICHOLSON/Reuters/Corbis)

A "combative meeting" and stiff pressure from the NFL led to ESPN's decision to suddenly back out of a joint investigative project with PBS' prestigious Frontline program examining the NFL's handling of head trauma injuries, according to the New York Times' James Andrew Miller.

The NFL's top brass, including Commissioner Roger Goodell, reportedly pressured the sports network to quit the collaboration after seeing a trailer for a forthcoming Frontline documentary. Citing two people close to the decision, Miller reports that Goodell, ESPN President John Skipper, and two others held a lunch meeting near the NFL's headquarters earlier this month in which league officials "conveyed their displeasure with the direction of the documentary."

The NFL, widely seen as resistant or indifferent to addressing the long-term effects of concussions and other head injuries, is already facing lawsuits from thousands of former players alleging just that. The documentary, with the unambiguous title, "League of Denial," will examine those claims to determine if the NFL has "covered up the risks of football on the brain," according to Frontline's promotional copy.

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The NFL denied the Times' allegation, saying in a statement Friday: "It is not true that we pressured ESPN to pull out of the film. The lunch was requested several weeks ago by ESPN. We meet with our business partners on a regular basis and this was not unusual."

Frontline and ESPN had been working on the project for the past 15 months, with the film set to debut in two installments this coming October. But on Thursday, Frontline announced that ESPN had bowed out and asked that the film no longer credit ESPN nor use its logos.

"We don't normally comment on investigative projects in progress, but we regret ESPN's decision to end a collaboration that has spanned the last 15 months," Frontline Executive Producer David Fanning and Deputy Executive Producer Raney Aronson said in a statement.

The film was still in the editing stage and had not been seen by ESPN executives, the producers added, though they were "on schedule to share it with them for their editorial input."

ESPN has a huge financial tie to the league. In 2011, the two sides renewed a contract for ESPN to exclusively air Monday Night Football — the highest-rated show on cable TV — through 2012 at a cost of $1.9 billion per year.

Yet the network on Thursday denied that enormous TV deal factored into the decision to back out, instead citing a lack of "editorial control."

"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 network said.

As part of the collaboration, ESPN had been airing reports on its Outside the Lines program, and posting stories to its website. Aronson confirmed to The New Republic Thursday that Frontline had no editorial control over the OTL segments, and ESPN had no editorial control over the documentary, though the two partnered on the online articles.

From The New Republic:

The arrangement, Aronson said, had worked well for over a year. "We have weighed in on each other's work, but we don't have control," she said of the OTL segments. Conversely, she said, "We would definitely welcome their editorial thoughts, but we ultimately bear responsibility for our broadcast." Aronson added that this has been the arrangement with other collaborations Frontline has done, including with NPR and Univision. "It's not conceivable for us to give up editorial control of our broadcast," she added. [The New Republic]

Nearly 5,000 former NFL players have filed suit against the NFL, alleging the league deliberately hid information about football-related head trauma and its lasting impacts on the brain. A judge rolled those lawsuits into one massive complaint earlier this summer, and in July ordered the two sides into mediation.

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