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Report: NFL pressure leads to ESPN backing out of documentary project

Jay Busbee
Yahoo Sports

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Aug 2, 2013; Canton, OH, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reportedly met with ESPN officials last week. (USAT …

For more than a year, ESPN and PBS had worked together on a "Frontline" documentary project entitled "League of Denial." Scheduled to air in October, the documentary investigates whether the NFL covered up evidence of long-term head injuries caused by football.

On Thursday, however, PBS announced that ESPN was withdrawing from the project. Hours later, the New York Times reported that the NFL had pressured ESPN, which pays the NFL in excess of $1 billion annually for broadcast rights, to cease its involvement in the project.

According to the Times, representatives for both the NFL and ESPN met for lunch last week to discuss the project. At what the Times termed a "combative meeting," Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL, and Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network, "conveyed their displeasure with the direction of the documentary" to John Skipper, president of ESPN, and John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production.

However, the NFL disagrees with the Times' characterization of events. "It is not true that we pressured ESPN to pull out of the film," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Yahoo! Sports. "The lunch was requested several weeks ago by ESPN. We meet with our business partners on a regular basis and this was not unusual."

"League of Denial" is based in part on the work of ESPN investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada. A trailer for the project, now viewable on PBS's site, aired earlier this month.

According to the Times, the journalistic boundaries of the ESPN/Frontline collaboration were clear: ESPN would have editorial control over parts of the project run on its airwaves and website, while PBS would have editorial control over the documentary itself and elements run on its own site. A third element, a book by the Fainaru brothers entitled "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth," will be published in October in connection with the project. PBS executives said this arrangement was established at the outset and had worked well for more than a year.

NFL sources told Yahoo! Sports that the league has known about ESPN's involvement with the book and documentary for almost a year, and has cooperated in several ways with the project's development.

However, according to The New Republic, late last week ESPN contacted Frontline to request the removal of ESPN's logo over what Frontline executive producer Raney Aronson said were "trademark" concerns. On Monday, ESPN requested that language describing their work with Frontline as a collaboration also be removed from the site.

PBS announced the end of the collaboration on Thursday. "From now on, at ESPN’s request, we will no longer use their logos and collaboration credit on these sites and on our upcoming film League of Denial, which investigates the NFL's response to head injuries among football players," Frontline executive producers David Fanning and Raney Aronson wrote in a statement. "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 and is based on the work of ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, as well as Frontline's own original journalism."

ESPN released a statement later Thursday indicating its reasons for withdrawing: "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 use of ESPN's marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control. As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting."

"The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL," ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said via a statement to Yahoo! Sports. "As we have in the past including as recently as Sunday, we will continue to cover the concussion story aggressively through our own reporting."

Frontline executives said that ESPN editors and executives knew exactly what the arrangement would be going into the project, and indeed were enthusiastic about the project throughout its existence.

"Over the last 15 months, we've done exactly what we've talked about, and it's terrific. We just did so much great work together," Aronson told The New Republic. "It's been nothing but a very collegial, almost simpatico relationship, with our editorial counterparts there. They've been open and curious and terrific."

Of note: ESPN is not completely distancing itself from the concussion story. The Fainaru brothers remain employed at ESPN, and several articles on the issue, including one highly critical of one of the NFL's chief medical experts in the concussion matter, remain on the website.

"League of Denial" is scheduled to air Oct. 8 and 15 on PBS stations, concurrent with the publication of the Fainaru brothers' book of the same name.

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