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Was ESPN Sloppy, Naïve or Compromised? (ESPN / Ombudsman)
So what’s more damaging to a corporate image: to be considered sloppy, naïve or compromised? Or all three? You get to pick in the wake of ESPN’s announcement that it was removing its brand from an upcoming two-part documentary by PBS’ Frontline that “reveals the hidden story of the NFL and brain injuries” (or so it claims in a controversial trailer). The ESPN action drew immediate media and mailbag accusations that the NFL had pressured the network into severing ties to the PBS films. I thought the best and briefest characterization came from Ombuddy Philip Berenbroick of Arlington, Va., who saw ESPN’s decision as an example of “the dueling journalism and profit motives [via protecting valued partners] at the network.” It’s hard to argue with that depiction. NYT ESPN’s divorce with PBS came a week after the NFL voiced its displeasure with the documentary at a lunch between league and ESPN executives, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation. The meeting took place 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 NFL; Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network; John Skipper, ESPN’s president; and John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production. Deadline Hollywood The League Of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis trailer was screened at an Aug. 6 media panel and unveiled without Skipper’s or ESPN’s approval. Skipper complained the video was “sensational” and made him “quite unhappy.” He didn’t like the tagline, “Get ready to change the way you see the game,” or the trailer’s final quote from a neuropathologist on the extent of brain injuries in the NFL, “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.” Media watchers say pressure from the NFL led to ESPN’s sudden withdrawal and now Skipper admits he was embarrassed by the Frontline documentary. HuffPost In the wake of a report that ESPN bowed out of a joint investigative project with PBS on NFL player concussions, the union representing players said it was a “disappointing day for journalism” if the sports network caved on the series out of business concerns. “I think any time that business interests get in the way of telling an important story like the one Frontline was working on, I think that that’s a sad day, regardless of why or who or what the circumstances were,” George Atallah, spokesman for the NFL Players Association, told HuffPost. CJR / Full-Court Press Whatever the case, it looks bad for both parties. The NFL is being sued over its decades of “Don’t worry, it’s just a bruise” approach to medicine, a personal-injury lawsuit that has expanded to some 4,500 plaintiffs. Reports of the kind broadcast by ESPN and PBS not only damage the league’s brand equity, but have the potential to inflict further direct damages in existing and potential lawsuits. That’s not the sort of benefits promised by a broadcast partner when it agrees to pay more than a billion dollars in rights fees to the NFL.