Regarding NFL, ESPN has become worldwide follower
BY RICK MORRISSEY Sports Columnist August 25, 2013 8:34PM
Super Bowl XLVII - Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers
Updated: September 27, 2013 6:28AM
What, you thought ESPN was in business for the humanitarian buzz?
The surprise isn’t that the network backed out of its collaboration with PBS’ “Frontline’’ on a documentary film project about concussions in the NFL. It’s that it ventured out of the bed it shares with the league in the first place.
You might wonder how those perfectly coiffed TV folks deal with such a terrible case of bedhead day in and day out. Answer: effortlessly. If image and money are involved, ESPN almost always will do the corporate thing.
That’s what makes its decision to work with “Frontline” on an investigation into the long-term effects of football head injuries so perplexing. ESPN is as monolithic as the NFL is. It doesn’t think with a journalist’s brain when it comes to decisions that have to do with the bottom line. It thinks with a suit’s mind. A suit’s mind says that it doesn’t want to upset a corporate partner that brings the network billions of dollars.
When it became apparent that the PBS project would show what everyone knows anyway, that playing football is bad for the organ that floats inside the cranium, the NFL became very upset. And when the NFL becomes very upset, ESPN has sympathy pains.
The New York Times reported that ESPN withdrew from the project under pressure from the NFL. ESPN denied the report, saying it had pulled out because it didn’t have editorial control over the documentary’s content. Sure. Fifteen months into the collaboration, and now it dawns on you that you don’t have editorial control.
But how can critics cry “Shame!’’ when what happened was the only logical outcome for two massive corporations dependent on large men battering their heads against each other? Those very collisions feed the league and the network. If you’ve watched ESPN’s football coverage without that truth in mind, then shame on you for being so naïve. What did you think was going on?
What is odd is that, until the “Frontline” controversy, ESPN had been aggressive in covering the concussion story. Its “Outside the Lines’’ program had recently aired a segment highly critical of the doctor who formerly ran the league’s research committee on concussions. In fact, the two networks had collaborated on nine earlier projects dealing with concussions.
But it looks like enough was finally enough.
There are lots of talented, committed and ethical people who work for ESPN. That’s not a statement meant as a compulsory pause before the bashing continues. Brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru are two of the best reporters, sports or otherwise, in the country.
They do not do the bidding of the network, but the corporation they work for feeds at the same trough as the NFL. So when ESPN made the decision to pull out of its collaboration with “Frontline,’’ it wasn’t with the two investigative reporters in mind. It was with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in mind.
By ending its relationship with “Frontline,’’ ESPN sent the message that it was on the side of the NFL people who believe there’s no proven relationship between football and long-term health problems due to concussions. And once that message was out, it was a short walk to the conclusion that ESPN, like the NFL, is worried only about money. If football is in trouble, then so is the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
In a column posted Sunday, ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte asked whether the network had been sloppy, naïve or compromised, without coming to a conclusion. I think if he opens Door No. 3, he’ll find the answer. Thousands of former players are suing the NFL, accusing the league of hiding information that links football-related concussions to permanent brain damage. The monetary damages could be staggering for the NFL. And ESPN would feel the long-term blowback if more mothers and fathers decided to keep their children out of the sport.
It’s nice when journalists know they have the support of their bosses, the way Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did with the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham during the Watergate scandal. At one point, Bernstein told attorney general John Mitchell he had proof of Mitchell’s involvement in a fund used to obtain information about Democrats.
“Katie Graham’s going to get her [breast] caught in a big, fat wringer if that’s published,’’ Mitchell said.
Graham didn’t budge.
It sounds as if ESPN president John Skipper was concerned something of his was going to get caught in a big, fat wringer.