ESPN Mysteriously Pulls Out of PBS NFL Concussion Film "League of Denial"

By Jason McIntyre

Bad look ESPN, very bad look.

At the 11th hour, ESPN has pulled out of a joint film venture with PBS chronicling NFL concussions. PBS released a statement today that took many by surprise, and gave the impression that ESPN was scared of going all-in on concussions in the most popular sport in the country.

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.

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.

Why the sudden change of heart? Did the NFL catch wind of the film – “League of Denial,” written by two ESPN writers – and lean on ESPN to distance itself from PBS? (See, Playmakers, 2004.) Privately, ESPN vociferously says no. Here’s a statement ESPN just released:

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.

A fair point. Hey, we’re doing a large portion of this heavy lifting, yet we have no control and our brand is all over it? Well, that’s a problem. But here’s why it’s still an awful look for the network: what took the powers that be at ESPN so long to determine that this? You work with someone for 15 months and only now, near the finish line, do you decide to pull out?

Even if there’s nothing nefarious about this – nobody thinks ESPN is soft on concussions; see Outside the Lines, ESPN the Magazine, etc – it’ll look bad for ESPN because of the timing and of course its relationship with the NFL.

I can’t think of a comparable situation, though one that sort of comes to mind is Stan Van Gundy, the NBA, and ESPN. For those who missed that story: ESPN had a handshake deal with Stan Van Gundy to join NBA countdown in 2012. But David Stern, who hates Stan Van Gundy, put the kibosh on it, and ESPN had to scramble to find someone else.