NFL Pressure Led ESPN to Drop Frontline Concussion Collaboration (Report)

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From left: Former NFL player Harry Carson, ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, senior coordinating producer at ESPN Dwayne Bray and filmmaker Michael Kirk at a TCA panel in August

UPDATED: A league meeting last week that included NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and ESPN president John Skipper reportedly led to the ending of the partnership.

ESPN ended its high-profile collaboration with PBS' Frontline on a concussion investigation project due to pressure from the National Football League, according to The New York Times

The Times reported that top brass from ESPN and the NFL convened for what was described as a "combative meeting" last week -- with ESPN president John Skipper, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Network president Steve Bornstein and ESPN's executive vp production John Wildhack all present. 

This week, Steve Fainaru, the ESPN investigative reporter who spearheaded the project, learned that a change was going to be made. "We found out something was going on at the beginning of the week," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "We were disappointed. We really believed strongly in the partnership."

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

PBS Frontline officially issued a statement on the ending of the partnership on Thursday. "From now on, at ESPN's request, we will no longer use their logos and collaboration credit on these sites and on our upcoming film League of Denial, which investigates the NFL's response to head injuries among football players," read the joint statement from Frontline executive producer David Fanning and deputy executive producer Raney Aronson.

The documentary, League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis, drew much of its reporting from Fainaru and his brother Mark Fainaru-Wada, also an investigative reporter. PBS is still planning on airing the doc in two parts, on Oct. 8 and 15. 

The NFL denied to The New York Times that it had anything to do with the partnership -- which lasted more than a year -- ending. "At no time did we formally or informally ask them to divorce themselves from the project," said a spokesperson for the league to the paper. 

ESPN has described the split in official statements as a matter of having editorial control over something that was co-branded. With the documentary only two months from its television debut, the network became more aware of the arrangement. 

"We should've paid attention to the marketing and the branding much sooner," said Chris LaPlaca, ESPN's senior vp corporate communications, to THR. "That was a mistake on our part."

On Aug. 6, the investigative reporters on the project, as well as the League of Denial director, Michael Kirk, and ESPN's sports news editor Dwayne Bray appeared on a Television Critics Association panel in Beverly Hills to discuss the documentary and concussions in the NFL. When asked about the NFL's participation, Kirk said the the league hadn't been cooperative in the Frontline project. 

"The NFL has not been cooperative, in the way that the Defense Department wasn't cooperative with us, in the way that the Central Intelligence Agency isn't cooperative," Kirk said. "Big institutions often don't open their doors to the kind of hard look it was our intention to take. … They, obviously, don't want to talk about it, and it's too bad because it's a huge, huge problem."

Kirk added at the time: "As to the footage, [the NFL has] not approved the footage, obviously. It's material that we've spent months and months gathering to illustrate what they knew and when they knew it and what happened to the people who worked for them."

On Friday, Skipper issued a statement assuring viewers that ESPN would continue to report on the subject.

"We have been leaders in reporting on the concussion issue, dating back to the mid-1990s," said Skipper. "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."

Just weeks earlier, in an interview with THR, Skipper said a conflict between the network's programming group and its news and information group was "manageable."

"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 said. "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."