Did The NFL Put Pressure On ESPN To Divorce Frontline?

Monday August 26th, 2013

Sports Illustrated took a look at concussions in its Nov. 1, 2010, issue.

Raney Aronson-Rath woke up Friday morning to a flurry of emails and texts from friends and colleagues. It had been an eventful 24 hours for Frontline's deputy executive producer and a somewhat sad one, too. Last Thursday afternoon, Aronson-Rath and her Frontline colleague David Fanning, the executive producer for the award-winning program, posted a note to readers on the show's website announcing their regret over ESPN's decision to end a collaboration between the two entities on concussion reporting that had spanned the last 15 months. The collaboration was based on Frontline's journalism and the work of two highly-respected ESPN reporters, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, the co-authors of an upcoming book, League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth. According to the book's description, League of Denial "reveals how the NFL, over a period of nearly two decades, sought to cover up and deny mounting evidence of the connection between football and brain damage."

For those in the journalism community, it was a shocking end to fruitful collaboration, and by Frontline announcing it before ESPN did, it left those in Bristol in a defensive public relations stance. Then things got even more interesting.

"One of my emails when I woke up on Friday read "Oh, My God, check the New York Times," recalled Aronson-Rath in an interview with SI.com. "That's when I saw the piece."

The piece, co-written by reporter James Andrew Miler, the author of a best-selling book on ESPN and arguably the most-sourced reporter covering the network, questioned the early narrative being offered by ESPN on why the partnership had ended. The network said that because ESPN was not producing nor exercising editorial control over the Frontline documentaries, there would 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," the network said, in a statement.)

Under the headline "N.F.L. Pressure Said to Lead ESPN to Quit Film Project," Miller and Ken Belson reported that ESPN's decision to divorce itself from Frontline, which airs on PBS, had come a week after the NFL voiced its displeasure with the documentary at a lunch between league and ESPN executives.

Wrote Miller: "It was a table for four: Roger Goodell, commissioner of the N.F.L.; Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network; John Skipper, ESPN's president; and John Wildhack, ESPN's executive vice president for production. The meeting was combative...with league officials conveying their irritation 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."

The Times story was immediately denied by the NFL. In an email sent to reporters including SI.com, the NFL said, "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."

ESPN also issued another statement, denying the NFL had exerted influence. "The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL," ESPN said. "As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story aggressively through our own reporting.

Aronson-Rath said there was no hint of discord between ESPN and Frontline. The two companies had worked together on multiple projects including a tough story on NFL doctor Elliot Pellman that was posted on ESPN.com on Aug. 18 and given collaboration language at both places. Frontline and ESPN had collaborated on nine different published projects prior to ESPN ending the marriage, according to Aronson.

Staffers at ESPN had let this column know over the past month that they were fearful something like this could happen with the Frontline-ESPN collaboration. They suggested pressure was being exerted by the NFL at levels well above Outside The Lines management. Said one ESPN staffer last week: "I'm hearing of stuff I never thought I'd see at our place."

"We had collaboration credit in two different places in their broadcast," Aronson-Rath said of the Pellman story. "My feeling is, and I can't verify this, it appears to me that it was not their [OTL management's] decision. Nobody confirmed that for me but clearly [ESPN senior coordinating producer] Dwayne Bray was with us at the press tour a couple of weeks ago. That is as public as you can go with the TV critics announcing this and being asked all these same questions that are emerging right now.

Bray's comments at the Television Critics Association panel on Aug. 6 praising the partnership can be found here. The senior coordinating producer was Aronson-Rath's primary contact at ESPN and is known at the network, along with all fulltime OTL staffers, as an advocate for journalism.

"He was positive, he was confident, he made statements of purpose about our collaboration," Aronson-Rath said. "There was no reason for us to believe that any of what he said or anything anyone said at the editorial levels were anything but genuine about our partnership. Besides what they said publicly, the proof was in the work we were doing together. Our journalists were eye to eye. It was one of the best partnerships we had with the journalists at ESPN."

In an interview with SI.com on Sunday, Steve Fainaru said the NFL had "pushed back" on concussion stories he and his brother have reported, making particular note of a story they did for ESPN and Frontline on the late Junior Seau last January. "They have been uncomfortable with the coverage from the very beginning and before we started writing the book," said Fainaru, who won a Pulitzer Prize in international reporting while a staffer at the Washington Post.

ESPN viewers will ultimately have to make a decision as to which narrative they believe. Was this a bone being thrown to a business partner unhappy with an upcoming documentary, a case of not having editorial control, or a sea change in how ESPN operates journalistically for the toughest stories involving television partners? ESPN.com senior writer Don Van Natta Jr., a multiple Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote critically of Goodell earlier this year, said the investigative group will continue to pursue the concussion subject matter.

"We will continue to do aggressive, smart reporting on the NFL concussion issue heading forward," Van Natta said. "There is no place I'd rather work."

Those well-compensated to spread ESPN's message externally -- they were very busy calling reporters on Friday -- have noted correctly that ESPN has covered the concussion issue over the past several years. A sampling of those pieces can now be found on ESPN's public relations site: Skipper released a statement on Friday that read, "We have been leaders in reporting on the concussion issue, dating back to the mid-1990s...I want to be clear about ESPN's commitment to journalism and the work of our award-winning enterprise team. We will continue to report this story and will continue to support the work of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. We have respect as well for the efforts of the people at Frontline." There was no mention of the NFL in Skipper's release.

Bornstein, the NFL Network executive who once was chairman of ESPN, turned down SI.com's request for an interview. (Alas, we'll probably never learn who paid for lunch, and what and who were served.)

The next pressure point comes the second week of October when the Fainaru book is published. Those inside ESPN who care about journalism are watching to see how aggressive the company will promote the book and documentary. Will the Fainaru Brothers get a couple of quick OTL segments on ESPN2 and exit stage right, or will the company open up the multi-platforms as they did when Tim Tebow took off his shirt at practice last year or Johnny Manziel signed some autographs? Will they appear on multiple SportsCenters? Will Around The Horn's journalists get points deducted for talking about the book? The irony is no matter how ESPN plays it, the company's resources are all over the film and the Fainaru's book.

"We anticipate having them on our platforms to discuss the book," an ESPN spokesperson told SI.com Sunday.

How does the dissolution of the partnership impact the Frontline documentary? It does not. The two-part piece will air nationally on PBS on Oct. 8 and Oct. 15 and it will likely get a massive tune-in given how much attention this breakup has received.

"This is something that would be troubling to any journalist," Fainaru said. "At the same time, this does not change our actual journalism one iota. That film is coming out Oct. 8 and the book is coming out Oct. 8. ESPN, which has done cutting-edge journalism, is going to continue to do cutting-edge journalism on the story in the future."

"We are at the end stages of editing the film," Aronson-Rath said. "We have great interviews from the ESPN reporters and we have terrific reporting. My hope was in collaborating with ESPN that we would bring this story to a new audience -- people who don't necessarily watch Frontline. I was hoping that this story would not just get publicity but also have the editorial might of ESPN."

The Noise Report

(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.)

1. Sports Illustrated ran an amusing profile of Amy Trask in 2002, where she exhibited her passion for football (and especially the Raiders) in no uncertain terms. As writer Michael Silver described the scene, at the pivotal moment of the 2001 divisional playoff game between the Raiders and the Patriots, Trask, then the CEO of Oakland's team, hovered over 77-year-old league observer Art McNally as the replay review of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's apparent game-ending fumble played in front of them. Trask screamed, "You'd better call 911, because I'm going to have a f——— heart attack if you overturn this f——— call!"?

The call was overturned (Google the "Tuck Rule Game," kids), Trask did not have a heart attack, and the Pats went on to win Super Bowl XXXVI. Trask spent 27 years working as a management executive for the Raiders before she resigned last May. She will now follow the recent path taken by plenty of former NFL management types:

She has become a television analyst.

CBS announced last week that Trask will be an analyst for That Other Pregame Show, a new four-hour pregame show that will air on CBS Sports Network from 9 a.m.-1 p.m., beginning with Week 1 of the NFL season on Sept. 8. "When I resigned my position with the Raiders I had absolutely positively no idea or inkling whether this was something I would consider let alone undertake," Trask said in an interview last week. "I spent 27 years with the Raiders running the opposite direction anytime I saw a television camera."

Trask said she had no plans to enter broadcasting until the idea was suggested to her by former NFL colleagues, friends in the sports media (she's tight with Andrea Kremer of the NFL Network), and a broadcasting agent who contacted her after her resignation. The agent shopped her to a number of networks including ESPN. With CBS needing talent for a new pregame show-- and Trask and CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus sharing a long working relationship -- the fit worked. "She will talk about player personnel, and give her perspective on moves," McManus said. "She may give her perspective on owners. Amy has never been shy and certainly did not work for a shy man. I think her role will evolve. She knows how a team works as well as anyone. Let's see what she has to say."

Trask said she plans on giving "honest, candid, forthright views on topics of interest to the viewer" and that CBS management has told the show's staff that they do not have to stick to set topics. Said Trask: "Am I going to weigh in on X's and O's? You bet you, I might."

Trask's hire is significant because she will be the first female NFL analyst with significant management experience. She was the highest-ranking female executive of an NFL team and the only woman to be CEO of an NFL franchise. Traditional NFL broadcasting roles for women have been sideline reporting, hosting studio shows or feature reporting. Asked if she believed this to be a pioneering hire, Trask said, "I have gotten that question before and I stumbled and fumbled my way through it as I am apt to right now. I have approached my career in the following manner: I have done my job to the best of my ability without regard to my gender, My view has always been that if I don't want my gender to be an issue, then I should not make my gender an issue. I have been asked about that issue before and I don't do the best job answering the question because I have spent decades comporting myself without regard to gender."

1a. Ed Sherman of The Sherman Report has more on CBS Sports Television's new pregame show.

2. Here is the Frontline trailer for "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis." Judge for yourself if it is sensationalized.

2a. Aronson-Rath said she considers the concussion issue one of the most important sports stories of our time. "The story of concussions, football players and what it mean for our nation and for our children who are playing across the country ranks up there with other really important work Frontline has done," she said. "I feel passionate that this reporting has to get out about concussions and football."

2b. Asked if she was personally disappointed in the breakup with ESPN, Aronson-Rath said, "I am a person who believes in partnerships and collaboration across news organization. My disappointment has to do with the fact that we were doing great work. I am a journalist and I want to great work with other journalists. So when that relationship disintegrated earlier this week, of course, I was disappointed."

2c. ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte weighed in on the story, and particularly interesting are John Skipper's comments on Frontline's trailer and his talks with Disney's CEO and lawyers.

2d. A Frontline spokesperson said its highest-rated program show this year has been The Choice, which focused around Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The show drew 5.768 million viewers. We'll see how close League of Denial comes to it.

2e. Filmmaker Sean Pamphilion told the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Daily News that ESPN withdrew support for his film ''United States of Football,'' a documentary that looks into the reasons the league is cracking down on explosive hits, because of pressure from the NFL. ESPN responded to the charge in an interview with Pro Football Talk.

2f. Bleacher Report NFL writer Michael Schottey hustled to get some interesting quotes from former ESPN analyst Lomas Brown and the NFL Players Association on the Frontline-ESPN split.

3. Something I didn't get to in this space last week in my interview with ESPN College GameDay host Chris Fowler was his love of the Chelsea soccer club. Why is Fowler a Chelsea fan? "I stayed in that area, in Stamford Bridge, when I was first going to London," Fowler said. "Some of my early years covering Wimbledon I stayed there too before I wisely started staying closer to the tournament. I've always been a soccer fan and was drawn to them long before they were this big, free-spending team everyone loves to hate. Not only do I love Chelsea, I don't love Manchester United, which fires people up."

Asked who would be ESPN's Jose Mourinho, the Chelsea manager, Fowler agreed that Bob Ley would be a good call. "First of all, Bob Ley will know who Jose Mourinho is," Fowler said "He is the wise one, who keeps coming back and still succeeds at a high level."

4. In two weeks, Outside The Lines shifts from its current time slot of Sunday at 9:00 a.m. ET on ESPN to one hour earlier on ESPN2 so Colin Cowherd can bring viewers his special brand of football coverage from a studio in Bristol, Ct. Management has made a clear decision to bury Outside The Lines this fall but the hard-working folks in the OTL unit are going out strong before they lose ½ their audience upon first airing. Van Natta Jr. worked for a couple of months on an fascinating piece that aired this week on whether Bobby Riggs threw the famous 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" match against Billie Jean King because he owned money to the mob. Check it out here.

5. I spoke to former wide receiver Randy Moss last week as part of a piece for the TheMMQB.com on Fox Sports 1's NFL studio show philosophy.

I enjoyed the conversation, especially Moss's answer to being asked what it was like being an NFL analyst. "I don't like that term," Moss said. "I just like being called part of FOX Football Daily and our Sunday show. I am not part of the media. That's not my label, and I don't want it to start now. I love the game of football, and this is just a new way for me to be part of the game. Everything from the makeup to the studio to the lights, camera, action, I am enjoying everything. I like to adventure out and learn new things, and this gives me the opportunity to keep learning."

6. ESPN has been sensational when it comes to tonnage of tennis majors and it's US Open tennis coverage will include 100 hours on television and 400 on ESPN3. Here's the 8,000-word press release on it.

6a. CBS and ESPN tennis commentator John McEnroe on Roger Federer's chances to win a major: "I personally think that at this stage it's going to be quite, quite difficult for him to win another one."

7. It was terrific week for notable sports pieces:

•Richard Sandomir and James Andrew Miller co-wrote a must-read examination of ESPN's influence over college football.

•ESPN's Liz Merrill delivered a terrific profile of former boxer Tommy Morrison.

Greg Bishop of the New York Times had a great profile of South Carolina football star Jadeveon Clowney.

•ESPN's Wright Thompson artfully profiled Iowa wrestling legend Dan Gable and his attempt to save his sport.

•The New York Times magazine had a long profile of Roger Federer.

•SI's Grant Wahl wrote a terrific cover story on electric Italian soccer player Mario Balotelli.

Non-sports pieces of note:

•All writers should read the first paragraph of this obituary for The Economist. It is brilliant prose.

•An amazing series of photos out of Egypt.

8. College football fans: Here's an easy guide to all of ESPN studio programming this fall.

8a. Props to ESPN communications staffer Mike Humes for some serious numerical research on his network's college football coverage. Among the interesting numbers:

• ESPN has televised 283 Thursday college football primetime games involving 101 teams (73 different home teams and 78 as visitors). Virginia Tech leads all programs with 26 home and away games combined followed by Georgia Tech with 24.

•Auburn's 22-19 victory on Jan. 10, 2011 over Oregon (it aired on ESPN) is the most-watched program in cable television history with 27,316,000 viewers.

•ESPN has six on-air staffers who have won a national championship in college football: Todd Blackledge (1982 with Penn State); Ed Cunningham (Washington in 1991), Brian Griese (Michigan in 1997), Lou Holtz (as head coach of Notre Dame in 1988), Danny Kanell (Florida State in 1993) and Trevor Matich (BYU in 1984);

•The USC-Ohio State game on Sept. 12, 2009 is ESPN's most-viewed regular season game with 10,586,000 viewers.

•Birmingham finished the 2012 season as the highest-rated metered market for ESPN's regular-season for the 12th consecutive season. The market averaged an 8.9 rating -- 89 percent higher than second place Greenville's 4.7 rating.

8b. NBC Sports will produce a live pre-game show at Notre Dame Stadium prior to every Notre Dame football broadcast on NBC. It's an overdue move given how much ground the network has ceded to ESPN and others in the college studio space. The show will be hosted Liam McHugh with analysts Doug Flutie and Hines Ward. NBC will broadcast seven Notre Dame games this season, including primetime games on Oct. 5 (Arizona State) and October 19 (USC).

8c. CBS Sports Network has a new one-hour college football show -- Fast Football -- debuting this Tuesday at 5:00 p.m. ET. The show will air live on Tuesdays throughout the season and features host Brent Stover and analysts Tony Barnhart, Bruce Feldman, and Jeremy Fowler.

9. Deadspin's John Koblin diagrammed with perfect precision how ESPN manufactured a story out of Ron Jaworski's opinion on Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Sadly, we've seen ESPN repackage an analyst's opinion into a multi-platform news story on too many occasions. It reinforces the worst of the network's self-important tendencies.

10. Odds and Ends: Fox Sports 1 is in 89,180,000 homes, according to the most recent Nielsen numbers for September 2013 and Sports Business Journal.

10a. Fox Sports 1 Gabe Kapler wrote an interesting piece about PEDs for Baseball Prospectus.

10b. There is a never-ending demand for NFL content -- SI started the TheMMQB.com on that premise -- and ESPN.com will have a dedicated digital home for each of the 32 NFL teams. It's a smart play and the company is using its endless checkbook out to pilfer seasoned reporters from newspapers across the country. This is where ESPN's largesse helps because it gives talented news people a landing spot as newspapers continue to downsize. The list of reporters and hires is here.

10c. Keith Olbermann's new one-hour daily program --"Olbermann" -- debuts Monday on ESPN2 at 11:00 p.m. ET.

10d. Fox Sports 1 executives say the graphics on their network will inform viewers where a college football games is airing even if it is airing on a competitor. That's serving viewers. Well done.

10e. Treat yourself and watch this ESPN "My Wish" segment featuring Federer and fan Beatriz Tinoco.

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