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Report: Pressure from NFL led to ESPN's disassociation from concussion project with PBS

For the second time in a decade, the NFL isn't happy about ESPN-related programming. (Al Bello/Getty Images) For the second time in a decade, there's controversy regarding the NFL and programming that's ESPN-related. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

Those involved in the production of the PBS show "Frontline" recently announced that ESPN had pulled out of a partnership established 15 months ago due to concerns over editorial control. The partnership was for one specific project -- a two-part documentary on the NFL's history of concussions, entitled "League of Denial." The show is a companion to the book of the same title, written by ESPN's Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada and due out on October.

In a release Thursday, PBS said that ESPN had distanced itself from the partnership by removing permission for use of its logo and any credit for the project. According to executive producers Raney Aronson-Rath and David Fanning, the reversal of course came as a complete surprise.

"We’ve enjoyed a productive partnership with ESPN’s investigative program, Outside the Lines, jointly publishing and co-branding several ground-breaking articles on our respective websites and on their broadcast," the statement said in part. "We’ve been in sync on the goals of our reporting: to present the deepest accounting so far of the league’s handling of questions around the long-term impact of concussions. This editorial partnership was similar to our many other collaborations with news organizations over the years."

But according to James Andrew Miller of the New York Times, ESPN's decision to move away from the topic may have had its origins in a recent lunch meeting in New York with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Network president Steve Bornstein, ESPN president John Skipper and ESPN executive vice president for production John Wildhack.

According to two sources who spoke to Miller on the condition of anonymity, the league expressed its displeasure with the direction of the documentary. Until that time, Aronson-Rath told Miller, the two networks had worked well together to complete the show, with ESPN's Vince Doria and Dwayne Bray taking the lead on that end. That changed in conversations on Aug. 16 and 19 when Doria and Bray told Aronson-Rath that ESPN had changed its mind.

“At no time did we formally or informally ask them to divorce themselves from the project,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Miller on Friday morning. “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.”

However, the NFL refused to cooperate with PBS in the making of the documentary. Goodell was not made available to the filmmakers, nor were any other league executives. The NFL told those doctors currently working with the league on its concussion protocol that they could choose whether or not to participate, but according to Aronson-Rath, three members of the league's head, neck, and spine committee had agreed to be a part of the project before canceling their interviews.

The deciding incident appears to have been a Television Critics Association event in Beverly Hills on Aug. 6 when the trailer for the documentary was shown. At that time Bray spoke about how different the ESPN-PBS partnership was.

“I think one of the interesting things about ESPN is it’s sort of a bifurcated company. You do have the business partners on one side, but you also have the editorial production side.”

“So we made a conscious decision when we were presented with this opportunity to literally get in bed with ‘Frontline.' We’ve had other nonprofits, universities that have asked us to partner with them. We’ve never done a partnership. And from the ‘Frontline’ standpoint, I think this is only the second time domestically that they’ve done a partnership with a broadcast partner. So we respect ‘Frontline’ greatly. They respect us. And the N.F.L. is going to have to understand that.”

If Miller's report is true, however, it's clear that the NFL did not understand at all. The league is currently involved in more than 4,000 lawsuits brought by former players and their families, claiming the league knew for decades about the long-term effects of head injuries but did not do enough to help those players in need. The NFL has said that it provided warnings to players based on the medical research available at the time.

ESPN currently pays over $1 billion per year for the rights to Monday Night Football, which is both a ratings and revenue triumph for the network.

In 2004, then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue expressed his severe concern to ESPN about the drama series "Playmakers," which the league didn't like because of its portrayal of a fictional professional team. ESPN pulled the show after one season as a result.

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