There’s some shady business going down in Bristol. According to multiple reports, the Worldwide Leader in Sports withdrew all mentions of their name, logo, likeness, and materials from a project that they had been working on with PBS’s “Frontline” program just over a month before the show was to air. The New York Times is reporting that pressure from the NFL, which Disney Corp.–ESPN’s big daddy–pays a gazillion dollars a year for the rights to air the wildly successful “Monday Night Football,” led to the back out.
Not surprising, to say the least–even though the sports news juggernaut has done plenty of its own concussion stories, namely on the investigative reporting show “Outside the Lines.” This “Frontline” program, however, appeared to cross some lines.
“Frontline,” the PBS public affairs series, and ESPN had been working for 15 months on a two-part documentary, to be televised in October. But ESPN’s role came under intense pressure by the league, the two people said, after a trailer for the documentary was released Aug. 6, the day that the project was discussed at a Television Critics Association event in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Last week, several high-ranking officials convened a lunch meeting at Patroon, near the league’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, according to the two people, who requested anonymity because they were prohibited by their superiors from discussing the matter publicly. 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.
At the combative meeting, the people said, league officials conveyed their displeasure 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.
Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the N.F.L., said Friday morning that the lunch meeting was requested by ESPN several weeks ago. “At no time did we formally or informally ask them to divorce themselves from the project,” Aiello said. “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.”
Chris LaPlaca, an ESPN spokesman, said Thursday that ESPN’s decision was not based on any concerns about hurting its contractual relationship with the N.F.L. Rather, the network said in a statement, it was ending its official association with “Frontline” because it did not have editorial control of what appeared on the public television public affairs series.
It’s nice to see how things work in Bristol. Seems they care more about saving their big contracts than their integrity. And it’s also nice to see how Roger Goodell is willing to throw around his weight to prevent a (once-)credible sports news outlet from reporting on his company’s horrible deeds. High fives all around…