NFL Pressured ESPN to Bail on Frontline Film Due to Ongoing Fears of Concussion Lawsuits

By Mike Cardillo

Money. It’s always about money.

ESPN abruptly pulled out of a joint concussion film production with PBS Thursday, sending shockwaves through the media. ESPN and PBS spent 15 months together on the project – perhaps the most detailed piece chronicling concussions in the country’s most popular sport – and six weeks before the finish line, the Worldwide Leader in Sports bailed.

Everyone assumed the NFL was behind this, and the New York Times reports that two weeks ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell met with the heads of ESPN and NFL Network and expressed displeasure with the upcoming film.

At the combative meeting, the people said, league officials conveyed their displeasure with the direction of the documentary, which is expected to describe a narrative that has been captured in various news reports over the past decade: the league turning a blind eye to evidence that players were sustaining brain trauma on the field that could lead to profound, long-term cognitive disability.

Brian McCarthy, Vice President of Communications at National Football League told the Big Lead, “It is not true that we pressured ESPN to pull out of the film. We meet with our business partners on a regular basis and this was not unusual.”

Thursday, ESPN cited the reason for pulling out of the project was “editorial control.” This morning, ESPN sent The Big Lead another statement: “The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL. As we have in the past including as recently as Sunday, we will continue to cover the concussion story aggressively through our own reporting.”

Perhaps it should have instead said, “we don’t want the NFL to stick us with crappy Monday Night Football games in 2014.”

The real issue here is concussion lawsuits. A high-ranking NFL official who requested anonymity, told The Big Lead, “the lockout was about greedy owners. This is about the NFL’s survival.”

The concussion lawsuits, which could cost the league billions – with a B – privately have owners terrified. According to an NFL source, it all dates back to the 1990s and what the NFL knew about concussions and whether or not it did anything. Is PBS going to expose what happened about 20 years ago – say, whether or not the NFL hid concussion information? The Boston Globe made a brief mention of the situation in 2012:

ESPN and PBS combined on a story that revealed that former Steelers center Mike Webster and two other players were paid disability benefits by the NFL retirement board in the 1990s for brain injuries when the league was denying any link between football and long-term brain damage. The report touted this as a “smoking gun.” But something seems amiss on the story. If the NFL gave the players a check, then they have something. But the board is independent of the league and includes player representatives. So if you’re saying the NFL was covering something up, then the NFLPA wasn’t exactly in the dark.

The buzzwords you’ll need to be listening out for in the coming weeks/months around the PBS documentary: “Discovery” and “settlement.” The parties have already been ordered to the mediation before the judge rules on the NFL’s Motion to Dismiss. If the concussion lawsuits reach the discovery phrase, and key figures like Goodell and others high up the chain are getting deposed, it’s going to get ugly for the owners. So it makes sense they’d want to put pressure on Roger Goodell to get ESPN to bail on this project.

The less publicity for film, the better. Except by getting ESPN to bail on the project, the NFL just shone a massive spotlight on the documentary, and it’s now appointment television.