ESPN Drops TV Project On NFL Brain Injuries

Aug 23, 2013
Originally published on August 23, 2013 6:20 pm

ESPN is dropping its collaboration on a TV project about football league head injuries.

According to a New York Times report, the network is said to have received pressure from the NFL to withdraw from the Frontline documentary called “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” about the risks of football injuries on the brain.

The two-part investigative project is scheduled to air on PBS on October 8 and 15.


Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW.

HOBSON: ESPN is ESPN is dropping its collaboration on a TV project about football league head injuries. The New York Times reports that the network was pressure by the NFL to withdraw its name from the "Frontline" documentary "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis." It's about the risks of football brain injuries, and it's scheduled to air on PBS in October. But now, it appears without ESPN's name on it.

Derek Thompson is the business editor at The Atlantic. He joins us from New York, as he does each week to discuss. Derek, welcome.

DEREK THOMPSON: Good to be here.


Well, let's first hear a clip from the trailer for the documentary.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Mike Webster is top 100 players of the century and the best center ever that played the game.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It was his changing personality where he didn't trust anybody. He thought everybody was out to get him. That wasn't the Mike I knew and loved. That was the brain injuries.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He was homeless, and he was living in the bus station.

HOBSON: So that's from the documentary. Dwayne Bray from ESPN was quoted in The New York Times at the Television Critics Association event on August 6 as saying, "We respect 'Frontline' greatly. They respect us. And the NFL is going to have to understand that." So what happened here?

THOMPSON: Right. So ESPN has, for a long time, faced scrutiny over how it covers its most important business customer/partner, the NFL. Think of The New York Times is relying on the Treasury Department for funding while it tries to report on economic policy, you can - it's a pretty fraud relationship. But what ESPN has always said is, don't worry. We had editorial independence. And so what's really weird here is that reports have the NFL sitting down with ESPN, saying, we hate this documentary. And then ESPN turning around and saying, we no longer support this documentary that we've spent all this money on and had our journalists contribute to.

So, you know, ESPN is many, many things, including the largest media company in the world. But it's also a journalism company. And this looks really bad from journalism perspective.

HOBSON: And it's paying more than a billion dollars a year, by the way, to broadcast "Monday Night Football." What is ESPN saying about these accusations, that the NFL pressured it to withdraw?

THOMPSON: ESPN is saying, this isn't about the NFL controlling us. This is about ESPN controlling journalism that has the name ESPN on it, and "Frontline" isn't giving us enough editorial control. But ESPN was never going to have final say over the documentary. That hasn't changed.

What's changed is the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell reportedly had a meeting with ESPN and President John Skipper about the NFL really hating this documentary. And then a few days later, ESPN drops its name from the project. So that looks an awful lot like ESPN caving on a journalism project for business reasons.

HOBSON: But we've heard about the risks of brain injuries in football. What was it that's so - it hasn't been broadcast yet. But what is so damning about what's in this film?

THOMPSON: Right. Frankly, we don't know, Jeremy. But what is so ironic, I think, is that, at the end of the day, what journalists want to do with their controversial reporting is have as many people as possible watch it, listen to it, react to it. And ironically, by creating a tremendous controversy over this "Frontline" documentary and head injuries, this documentary is going to be seen by a vast - by vastly more people that it would have otherwise.


THOMPSON: And so, the NFL and ESPN, to a certain extend, have ironically given this doc the best possible publicity it could receive.

HOBSON: Derek, just before we let you go - we just have a few seconds left - but I know that you've met John Skipper, the president of ESPN, in Bristol this week - Bristol, Connecticut. What did he say?

THOMPSON: It was rather remarkable, actually, in retrospect. It was Wednesday. It was 1 o'clock at Bristol, Connecticut, ESPN headquarters, and he said, we are proud of our record, reporting on NFL concussions. And then 26 and a half hours later, ESPN pulls out of this project.

HOBSON: Derek Thompson, business editor at The Atlantic. It's going to be an interesting story to watch. Thanks so much as always.

THOMPSON: Good to be here.

HOBSON: And we'll be back in one minute. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.