By Ken Reed

ESPN recently decided to end its partnership with PBS on a project called “League of Denial,” a documentary that was supposed to be part of PBS’ high-quality Frontline series.

The New York Times reported that ESPN officials met with NFL administrators, including commissioner Roger Goodell, and shortly thereafter pulled the plug on their involvement in the “League of Denial.”

“My first reaction is that I’m disappointed but not surprised,” said George Atallah, the assistant director of external affairs at the NFL Players Association, in an interview with ThinkProgress. “Regardless of the reason for the decision that ESPN decided to distance themselves from the documentary, I think it’s sad. And the biggest disappointment is that the business interests have gotten in the way of journalistic integrity.”

Journalistic integrity isn’t something ESPN is known for (despite the excellent show Outside the Lines, which increasingly must be seen as nothing more than a PR tool for the business side of the network). ESPN low-keyed the Penn St./Joe Paterno scandal until the issue blew up on other media outlets. And they’ve caved in to NFL demands in the past.

As Dave Zirin reported, the true ESPN journalists (yes, there are some) aren’t happy with ESPN’s decision to drop the “League of Denial” project.

“The collective picture they (ESPN journalists) paint is one of a disheartened newsroom that feels disrespected, dismissed, and demoralized,” writes Zirin.

These ESPN reporters know the publicity this decision has received will result in long-term damage to their credibility as journalists. Moving forward, ESPN simply can’t be counted on to give news reports that aren’t tainted by the company’s partnership with the NFL and other sports entities.

“I don’t think those on the business side are bad people. But what you have are people with utterly opposed jobs,” one current ESPN reporter told Zirin. ” Their job is to keep the broadcast partners happy. Our job is to investigate them. That theoretically could produce a creative tension but the power imbalance [at ESPN] is ridiculous. It’s like they’re Mike Tyson and we’re Evander’s ear.”

For the true journalists at ESPN — and for the rest of us that care about the concussion issue and the win-at-all-costs and profit-all-costs mindsets that too often dominate in sports — here’s hoping that when “League of Denial” is released this fall millions of sports fans and athletes will tune in to PBS to watch.

“The Documentary That the NFL and ESPN Don’t Want You to See” is sure to be compelling viewing.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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