ESPN’s army of critics lament that the network is now more identified with combative debate show First Take than any semblance of sports journalism. They just got a lot more ammunition. The New York Times reports that ESPN pulled out of a documentary on head injuries in the NFL.
The Times cites sources close to the matter speaking under anonymity. ESPN and the award-winning PBS series Frontline had worked for 15 months on the two-part documentary, which will air in October. The sports network is no longer a part of the piece. Spokesman Chris LaPlaca said ESPN’s concerns were that it would have no editorial control over the piece. Raney Aronson-Rath, deputy executive producer of Frontline, said the original agreement was that PBS would control whatever it aired or put on its site, and would have the same control over what it used.
James Andrew Miller’s Times article alleges that after the trailer for the documentary aired, the NFL got concerned and called a meeting with ESPN officials. After that, he proposes, the network got skittish.
What will show up on camera is that the NFL had no interest in participating in the documentary. It didn’t make executives available, and three doctors with league ties initially agreed to interviews than backed out. The absence of these individuals, particularly Commissioner Roger Goodell, speaks volumes. The typical non-answer PR sound bite would have been better than saying nothing at all.
As for ESPN, it is filled with more “opinion” and less real news, First Take being the most egregious offender. In that sense, it reflects other cable news outlets. This documentary was a prime opportunity to show that sports journalism is still practiced in Bristol. For whatever reason, the network did not take it.