Sportspinion: ESPN abandons documentary

Sports network shirking journalistic duty by caving under NFL pressure

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Aimed at exposing the National Football League’s failure to properly deal with the health of their players, the upcoming documentary League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis has unintentionally exposed another crisis of denial aligned with the game of football: ESPN’s poorly-handled decision to walk away from the documentary.

ESPN cut ties with PBS’s Frontline program after partnering with the series to produce an upcoming piece which claims to expose the NFL’s efforts to cover up significant long-term health risks associated with playing professional football, specifically the ever-present risk of concussions. Reports from the New York Times have pointed to a meeting between ESPN and NFL executives, during which the NFL expressed its opposition to the project as the primary reason ESPN decided to drop the documentary.

While both ESPN and the NFL dismiss these reports, the evidence does not point in their favour. Quashing the PBS documentary would not be the first time the league exerted their influence over ESPN to protect their image. A similar situation ensued in 2004, when the NFL successfully lobbied for the ending of ESPN’s Playmakers, a fictional series that portrayed the league in a less-than-favourable manner. While the documentary will still be aired by Frontline as planned, it will do so with no noticeable affiliation with the ESPN brand.

While proving that the NFL’s influence led directly to ESPN walking away from the Frontline piece may be difficult, what is more important is the fact that they walked away at all. If it was in fact the league’s protests that forced ESPN’s hand, such an action on the part of ESPN would clearly undermine the credibility and integrity of the network as a journalistic enterprise. Walking away suggests that the network is willing to shy away from shining a spotlight on controversial topics if their own interests are threatened, sacrificing coverage of the serious issues that are currently challenging the league and the sport as a whole. Apparently, ESPN would rather sit back on the sidelines with their feet up, throwing out words of encouragement and praise, rather than getting their hands dirty. It is perhaps unsurprising that a network which pays over one billion dollars to the NFL annually for an even more lucrative television contract does not harbour an overwhelming amount of journalistic freedom within its walls when it comes to highlighting the league’s flaws.

ESPN’s dismissal of the Frontline documentary displays the network’s unwillingness to speak about the game in realistic or meaningful terms. ESPN has avoided acknowledging the issues facing the game out of a fear of damaging the NFL, the heart of the network, but have failed to understand that exposing the NFL’s weaknesses would strengthen the league by allowing it to adapt, improve and flourish in a more responsible manner. Turning a blind eye to the NFL’s flaws does the game a disservice by failing to address the need to adapt to the issues it currently faces, hindering progress in reducing the prevalence of concussions in football, not just at the professional level, but all levels.

There is a silver lining to ESPN’s controversial divorce from the project. Doing so has sparked enough of a media frenzy to raise the public’s awareness and interest in the documentary to a level it may not have ever reached had it been released with ESPN’s involvement as planned. While ESPN may have decided to back away from the issue of concussions in football, casting their own credibility into doubt, doing so in such an ill-advised manner may end up being a turning point in the discussion.