It’s been a troubling two years for both the most powerful sports league in America, the NFL, and the most powerful sports entity in the country, ESPN. The two are television partners, but let’s count the ways one appears to be taking advantage of the other:
1) August, 2013 – ESPN abruptly backed out of a joint film venture with PBS, League of Denial. PBS was examining concussions and football. ESPN had been working with PBS for 15 months, and pulled out at the last minute. Only the truly naive would assume there’s no connection here between the NFL and ESPN.
2) September, 2014 – Keith Olbermann and Jason Whitlock call for Roger Goodell to step down as the NFL commish. We even praised ESPN at the time as the only network to point both barrels squarely at the NFL. (Ten months later, Olbermann would be told if he wanted to extend his contract at ESPN, he needed to tone down his commentary. He has left ESPN.)
3) September, 2014 – Bill Simmons, one of ESPN’s most popular voices and the most powerful person in sports media, is suspended three weeks for calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a “liar” on a podcast. (Eight months later, Simmons was not retained by ESPN, and that was one of the major reasons.)
4) January, 2015 – ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, citing “league sources,” said the NFL found that the Patriots had 11 footballs in the AFC Championship game that were under-inflated by “two pounds per square inch.” Later, it was revealed only one of the footballs was deflated by at least that amount.
Mort’s “11 deflated footballs” triggered the “cheating” outcry. Patriots owner Bob Kraft, during his scorched earth statement this week, alluded to someone deliberately leaking Mort false information. Mortensen’s colleague, Adam Schefter, said this on the radio this week: “If that is indeed the case that one, two, three high-level individuals intentionally misled him to try to smear the Patriots, I say more shame on those people than Mort.” One of the most respected veteran reporters covering the NFL, Mort’s report set the wheels in motion for this entire saga.
5) Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio noted this week that ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith was used by the NFL to get a message out and set a narrative in motion that the American public ate up: Tom Brady destroyed his cell phone. Any real reporter that the NFL would have tried to funnel that through would have asked a bunch of questions, starting with the obvious: Why does destroying the cell phone matter? The answer, as we’ve been trying to tell you this week: IT DOESN’T. Investigator Ted Wells didn’t want Tom Brady’s phone and said so at his press conference. He told Brady that. He didn’t need Brady’s phone.
This … this isn’t a pretty picture.
According to this Bloomberg article, ESPN pays more money than any other network for NFL rights: $1.9 billion. Looking at TV ratings, ESPN has the lowest after NBC, Fox, and CBS (yes, it’s on cable). Bloomberg noted that ESPN is paying “four times the rate” for the NFL compared to the other three networks. Of course, ESPN uses more NFL footage than anyone else for its myriad of shows on multiple channels.
This all points to a troubling trend: While there’s no doubt the ESPN has an impressive stable of prize-winning and talented reporters, and “Outside the Lines” is a serious news show, there are more than a few examples over the last two years of the NFL attempting to stifle high-profile criticism (see Simmons, Olbermann), and allegedly leaking information to further an agenda (see Mortensen, Smith) at the most powerful sports media entity on the planet.