ESPN-Frontline deal was destined to implode

They're in different businesses, after all

Correction appended
When ESPN teamed with Frontline to cover the NFL safety and concussions beat last year, the sports network was lauded for its lofty intent and canny judgment. Here is definite proof ESPN is interested in being a news organization, and not merely existing to promote its broadcast partners, went the prevailing thinking. But then came the inevitable follow-up thought, almost in the same synaptic moment: Wait till they report something the NFL doesn’t like.

That time has apparently come, and—cynics rejoice!—ESPN has chosen money over ethics. Yesterday PBS issued a statement saying ESPN has asked to have its four letters removed from an upcoming documentary, League of Denial, that it had been co-producing with PBS, and includes work by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and his brother Steve Fainaru*. And the concussion blogs Frontline has been maintaining will now continue without the ESPN imprimatur, too.

James Andrew Miller, the unofficial ESPN beat reporter, wrote that two sources told him the NFL pressured ESPN to pull out during one of those awesome and combative New York business lunches that are the modern version of Michael Corleone sitting down with Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey. Other whispers indicate that the network got blowback from its recent report, via Outside The Lines, on questionable methods back in the days when Paul Tagliabue was commissioner, such as using his personal physician as the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. People I’ve spoken to in the business believe ESPN higher-ups simply never fully grasped what they were getting into when they decided to ride with Frontline.

Whatever the case, it looks bad for both parties. The NFL is being sued over its decades of “Don’t worry, it’s just a bruise” approach to medicine, a personal-injury lawsuit that has expanded to some 4,500 plaintiffs. Reports of the kind broadcast by ESPN and PBS not only damage the league’s brand equity, but have the potential to inflict further direct damages in existing and potential lawsuits. That’s not the sort of benefits promised by a broadcast partner when it agrees to pay over a billion dollars in rights fees to the NFL.

So the NFL plays the role of bullying corporate demon once more. For its part, ESPN simply appears craven, happy to cave in to its business interests when the going gets rough.

Still, one thing to keep in mind: It may be that ESPN is being a bit overzealous. The network has an all-consuming need for new information with which to feed its colossus of news and opinion programming, over all its platforms. It needs new revelations in order to throw red meat to its debate shows, to give its radio talk show hosts something over which to pontificate, and to give Outside The Lines and other investigative outlets some relevancy.

As Mike Florio pointed out on Pro Football Talk, OTL relentlessly pushed supposed evidence that the New Orleans Saints bugged opposing coaches booths, a charge that has gone nowhere. And the report on Dr. Pellman created an atmosphere of conflicted interest and bad faith without actually showing much proof of wrongdoing. Of course, Florio has his own agenda: He works as an “insider” for a competing network, NBC, that is also in bed with the NFL, and told me years ago that despite his website’s tendency to report on the dark side of pigskin he considers his role is to “protect the shield,” i.e. the NFL logo.

The snag with hiring investigative reporters to dig up dirt on powerful entities in sports, even broadcast partners, is that the move can backfire in both directions. When they report embarrassing information, there are upset partners. But at the same time, the reporters are so eager to justify their hiring, and the company often equally eager to show off its independence, that stories that don’t add much to the big picture get pushed as big news. A similar phenomenon happens with reportage on supposed NCAA violations. Yahoo’s sensational report from 2011 on misdeeds in the University of Miami football program created far more noise than actual proof of violations, for example. The cumulative effect in both cases is to create a cynical worldview among fans and media, where everyone is assumed to be guilty or hold sinister intentions.

Usually the unquenchable thirst for content results in harmless piffle like this. Sometimes, it wanders into more important terrain. When it does, the resulting mess damages everyone in sight.

Fast breaks

It isn’t fair to pass any sort of judgment on the new challenger to ESPN in the 24/7 sports business, Fox Sports 1, until they’ve been on the air more than a few days, so I’ll refrain (and in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve worked with and remain in contact with many of the channel’s production staffers). Still, here are a few instant impressions:

The much ballyhooed Canadian anchors of Fox Sports Tonight, Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, are a little too goofball for my tastes, but the potential for the right mix of comic edginess, a la Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick from SportsCenter’s glory days, is definitely there.

I scarcely care what ex-jocks like Donovan McNabb, Andy Roddick, and Gary Payton have to say about their own sports, let alone listening to Payton talk baseball and Roddick talk football.

The days of having a show that covers the entire sports world, regardless of broadcast rights, are officially gone (they barely existed, but SportsCenter used to at least try). FSL is clearly positioned as your go-to source for UFC news, which in its studio is as important as the other major sports (except for hockey, which only NBC, the rights holder to the NHL, feels is worthy of regular reportage). There’s nothing wrong with pushing your own product, but I just wish they could be less blatant about it.

Or, conversely, own it. Just once I’d love to see an anchor introduce some video by saying, “Here are the highlights of a sport we are cramming down your throat because we are paying truckloads of cash to air it five nights a week.” Or, “There was a big soccer match today, but because we lost the rights last year we are going to pretend it didn’t happen.”

I suppose that’s about as likely as ESPN not obeying when the NFL tells it to heel.

*Correction: The original version misspelled the names of Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: , , ,