ESPN President John Skipper: 'We Will Continue to Report This Story'

John Skipper

The ESPN chief is forced to once again defend the network's journalistic integrity after pulling out of an NFL concussion crisis investigation with PBS' "Frontline."

ESPN president John Skipper reiterated the network's commitment to cover the NFL concussion crisis despite pulling out of a joint project between PBS' Frontline and ESPN's investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada.

"We have been leaders in reporting on the concussion issue, dating back to the mid-1990s," said Skipper in a statement released on Friday. "Most recently, we aired a lengthy, thorough, well-reported segment on Outside the Lines on Sunday, and re-aired it Tuesday. I want to be clear about ESPN’s commitment to journalism and the work of our award-winning enterprise team. We will continue to report this story and will continue to support the work of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru."

Q&A: ESPN's John Skipper on Sports Rights, Layoffs and Keith Olbermann

The NFL has denied that it pressured ESPN to drop the project. And ESPN has said the dissolution of the partnership was due to a lack of final editorial control over the film. But ESPN's defection has left the documentary -- League of Denial -- without a deep-pocketed marketing partner.

"I think it has a huge impact given the promotional machine that ESPN has behind it," George Atallah, spokesman for the NFL Players Association, told The Hollywood Reporter. "Not having the full support of the promotional resources that ESPN has is going to be a blow to PBS and Frontline."

The New York Times reported that last week Skipper, ESPN's executive vp production John Wildhack, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Network president Steve Bornstein had a "combative" lunch during which ESPN's role in the film was discussed. At the moment the NFL is fighting a potentially multi-billion dollar lawsuit brought by more than 4,000 former players and their families contending that the league knew about the potentially ruinous effects of repeated head trauma. A Philadelphia judge has sent the case to mediation and, in early September, is expected to rule on the NFL's motion to dismiss.

But the media scrutiny surrounding the documentary, a production of PBS member station WGBH in Boston, is the kind of publicity the nonprofit could never afford to buy, especially with one important constituency: the NFL players.

"ESPN's dropping out of this, as a result of the real or perceived pressure, is going to make players watch more," said Atallah. "There's a lot of shaking going on in the player community."

Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada's upcoming book League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for the Truth (Crown Archetype) -- will be published on Oct. 8. And their research serves as the basis for the two-part Frontline investigation, which will air on Oct. 8 and 15.

"We were very surprised and disappointed that it played out this way," Fainaru-Wada told THR by phone on Friday. "It’s been a 15-month partnership that’s been idyllic. I think both sides have really enjoyed working with each other and have incredible respect for each other."

He added: "While it’s unfortunate that now the partnership appears to be over, everything we’ve heard from ESPN, from our bosses, is that this isn’t about the journalism."

ESPN hired Fainaru last year while Fainaru-Wada has been at the network since 2007. Fainaru is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter; Fanaru-Wada broke the BALCO steroids story while at The San Francisco Chronicle.

Last year, the brothers uncovered damning documents showing that in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the league's medical experts were still publicly denying a link between football and devastating brain disease, the NFL board paid $2 million in disability payments to multiple players, including Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who died in 2002 at age 50. The documents were part of a Nov. 16 report on Outside the Lines.

ESPN will pay the league $1.9 billion a year for the rights to air Monday Night Football, the highest-rated show on cable, which averages more than 12 million viewers last season. And though those rights are secured through 2021 at a total cost of $15.2 billion, ESPN still depends on access from the league. As Skipper noted, ESPN's investigative series Outside the Lines has already aired multiple concussion-related pieces that have been highly critical of the NFL. An Aug. 18 report by Fainaru and John Barr examined the role of Dr. Elliot Pellman, a rheumatologist and the league's top physician who allegedly downplayed the effects of concussions and sent severely concussed players back onto the field.

Nevertheless, Skipper has been forced to repeatedly bat down questions about conflicts of interest and interference from the leagues. "Internally, it's actually quite clear: We have a programming group, whose job it is to acquire rights, to work with the leagues, to be their partners in presenting their games on our air -- and then we have the news and information group, whose job it is to do enterprise journalism," Skipper told THR last June. "And the programming guys cannot interfere with the journalism. The single thing that irritates me most is the assumption that we have some sort of unmanageable conflict. We have a conflict, as your question relayed, but it's manageable as long as we stick to those rules. We employ hundreds of writers and journalists, and I don't think you'll find a single instance of somebody saying they were asked to pull off of a story."

Asked if he's ever heard directly from one of the league commissioners about ESPN's reporting, Skipper admitted he had. "I don't think there is any commissioner who hasn't said something to me," he said. "These guys are smart and they get it. It still doesn't mean it’s any fun. And they consider it their job, which is accurate, to build their businesses and protect the brand of the league. So yeah, they call me -- I try to be fair. We have an ombudsperson. I have had reason to call people and say, 'Are you sure about your sources there? Will you double check?' I've never asked for the sources. I've set it up so nobody else is conflicted except me." 

In a more recent interview he pointed to ESPN's robust journalistic operation as a distinguishing factor in the competition with upstart Fox Sports 1, which launched on Aug. 17 in 90 million cable homes. "One thing I don't see them doing is assembling a news and information group," he said. "I don't know how you have credibility in the sports world if you can't report." 

But the controversy nevertheless gives ESPN's detractors new ammunition. "I work with journalists at ESPN who I know have very high standards and high levels of journalistic integrity," added Atallah. "So even though they may not be able to say it, let me say this for them: I think it's a poke in the eye for them, as well."

Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie