In a move that raises fresh questions about the National Football League’s willingness to confront the dangers of head injuries, ESPN abruptly cut ties with PBS’s Frontline over a two-hour documentary about football concussions scheduled to air in October. The New York Times reported that the league pressured ESPN, which airs “Monday Night Football,” to end the 15-month-old collaboration, which included a companion website that tracks players’ concussions. Just last Sunday, the team aired a segment on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that cast a harsh spotlight on Dr. Elliot Pellman, the former head of the NFL’s concussion committee, who allegedly dismissed early studies linking football to degenerative brain disease.
ESPN said it backed out because it did not have editorial control over what would appear on Frontline, which is produced by WGBH Boston. That’s a strange decision, since Frontline is the most respected documentary series in TV journalism, and the lead reporters on this project — former Globe and Washington Post writer Steve Fainaru and his brother, former San Francisco Chronicle writer Mark Fainaru-Wada — are among sports journalism’s most honored investigators.
But ESPN seems to have been scared off by their reporting. The online trailer for the show, which is titled “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” promises the story of a disease “that could change the game forever.” One researcher says of the league’s alleged suppression of brain-injury research, “You can’t go against the NFL, they’ll squash you.”
ESPN denies being squashed. But with the kickoff of a new season less than two weeks away, and ESPN such an integral part of the NFL’s multi-billion-dollar TV juggernaut, the network’s decision to disavow its collaboration with Frontline is another sign that the NFL remains more concerned about blows to its popularity than to its players’ heads.