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Friday (ESPN, the NFL and concussions) edition: Wha' Happened?

Posted by: Michael Rand under Professional football Updated: August 23, 2013 - 10:03 AM

When it comes to entertainment, objectivity and profit in the sports world these days, Robin Thicke probably said it best. There are blurred lines.

Here's what we know: ESPN was partnering with PBS's "Frontline" on a major project involving head injuries in the NFL. On Thursday, however, the Worldwide Leader pulled out. And now it is being reported that ESPN pulled out because of pressure from the big, bad NFL.

Blurred lines, indeed. Per the New York Times (written by James Andrew Miller, author of the must-read ESPN book):

“Frontline,” the PBS public affairs series, and ESPN had been working for 15 months on a two-part documentary, to be televised in October. But ESPN’s role came under intense pressure by the league, the two people said, after a trailer for the documentary was released Aug. 6, the day that the project was discussed at a Television Critics Association event in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Last week, several high-ranking officials convened a lunch meeting at Patroon, near the league’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, according to the two people, who requested anonymity because they were prohibited by their superiors from discussing the matter publicly. It was a table for four: Roger Goodell, commissioner of the N.F.L.; Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network; ESPN’s president, John Skipper; and John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production.

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.

There are statements from spokesmen from both the NFL and ESPN that attempt to whitewash this, but we believe Miller's reporting. And we believe this whole thing is quite important on a couple of fronts:

1) It shows, again, the NFL's growing paranoia (rightfully so) about its role in generations of head injuries and what the health/financial impact of that is going to be.

2) If true, it implies ESPN is beholden first to a league in which it is a major rights holder (more than $1 billion per year), and that such a high-stakes business relationship can trump its journalistic mission.

We have a growing feeling that the Goodell era is going to end in a spectacular ball of flames at some point. Remember this as another oily rag tossed onto the heap. 

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