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ESPN Quit Its Concussions Investigation With ‘Frontline’ Under Curious Circumstances

“Frontline,” the prestigious, multiple-Emmy-winning investigative news show produced by Boston’s PBS member station, announced late Thursday afternoon that a 15-month-old partnership with ESPN in which they published a series of pieces exploring how the National Football League has (and has not) accounted for the relationship between playing football, head trauma, and brain damage, had come to an end. Dating back to last November, “Frontline” had run articles on its site featuring the work of Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, ESPN staffers (and brothers) even as these articles appeared at and as the brothers did segments for ESPN’s award-winning investigative series “Outside the Lines.” The end result—in addition to a book that the brothers are publishing in October—was to be a “Frontline” documentary, League of Denial (also the book’s title).

According to “Frontline,” the documentary will premiere this season on October 8 and 15, but, “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.” Executive producer David Fanning and deputy executive producer Raney Aronson expressed their “regret” and credited ESPN with “a productive partnership.” They added, “The film is still being edited and has not been seen by ESPN news executives, although we were on schedule to share it with them for their editorial input.”

Aronson told me late Thursday that ESPN contacted “Frontline” last Friday to request that it remove ESPN’s logo from its website, citing the technicality that it was a “trademark issue.” It wasn’t until Monday, after the latest collaboration was published on “Frontline”’s website and aired on “OTL,” that ESPN also requested that language describing collaboration not be used, and that it became clear the collaboration itself was coming to an end.

“Over the last 15 months, we’ve done exactly what we’ve talked about, and it's terrific. We just did so much great work together,” said Aronson, sounding far more in sorrow than in anger. She added, “It’s been nothing but a very collegial, almost simpatico relationship, with our editorial counterparts there. They’ve been open and curious and terrific.” 

It has, indeed, been terrific. This story about the fate of star linebacker Junior Seau’s brain after he killed himself; the damning revelation that a partly owner-controlled board made disability payments based on brain damage even as the owners denied a link; and this past Sunday’s piece about the NFL giving authority over head trauma issues to an apparently underqualified rheumatologist were all important and compelling.

Most observers generally agree that, when it comes to the $40 billion self-anointed Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN can do great work and also can also find its work corrupted. The latter happens when it caters to the lowest common denominator (see: Skip Bayless, saturated coverage of Tim Tebow) or, more ominously, when it pulls punches when reporting on sports because it is also broadcasting partners with the leagues it is reporting on. The most prominent instance of this second kind of offense was when ESPN allegedly underreported rape allegations against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2009. ESPN will pay the NFL $1.9 billion each season for the rights to the weekly Monday night game; “Monday Night Football” is the most-watched program on cable.

“OTL,” by contrast, is as strong an example of ESPN's great work as you could find (although just this summer ESPN moved the show from its flagship network to ESPN2 and gave it a new timeslot, at 8 a.m. on Sundays, “de facto burying” it, according to Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch). Many—including me and including ESPN itself—held up this collaboration as an example of ESPN’s independence and rectitude when it comes to doing this kind of journalism.

Personally, I was optimistic. “My view on it was the proof will be in the pudding,” Fainaru told me last November. “Let’s just see how it goes.” Oof.

In an emailed statement, ESPN explained, “Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the 'Frontline' documentaries, there will be no co-branding involving ESPN on the documentaries or their marketing materials. The use of ESPN’s marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control. As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting.” An ESPN spokesperson declined to comment further.

Aronson confirmed that, under their arrangement, “Frontline” did not have editorial control over “OTL” segments and ESPN did not have editorial control over the “Frontline” documentary. (The articles, she said, were controlled jointly, originating at ESPN; ESPN senior editor Chris Buckle, she said, worked closely with “Frontline” managing editor Philip Bennett on those.) She said ESPN did not to her knowledge seek editorial control over the documentary. Asked why ESPN pulled out of the collaboration, she said she didn’t know. She noted that earlier this month, she, the journalists, the filmmakers, and ESPN producer Dwayne Bray appeared together at the television upfronts in Los Angeles. “Our journalism has been very strong on this issue, so strong that we partner with Frontline!’” Bray said, according to ThinkProgress’ Alyssa Rosenberg. (UPDATE: Deadspin's John Koblin has printed Bray's full statement, with even more of this kind of genuflecting toward "Frontline.")

The arrangement, Aronson said, had worked well for over a year. “We have weighed in on each other’s work, but we don’t have control,” she said of the “OTL” segments. Conversely, she said, “We would definitely welcome their editorial thoughts, but we ultimately bear responsibility for our broadcast.” Aronson added that this has been the arrangement with other collaborations “Frontline” has done, including with NPR and Univision. “It’s not conceivable for us to give up editorial control of our broadcast,” she added.

The Fainarus will continue to be involved in the roll-out of the film.

Just last week, after a lull of several months, the collaboration bore new fruit: Fainaru and John Barr, an ESPN staffer, reported that Dr. Elliot J. Pellman, a Long Island-based rheumatologist, NFL employee, and personal physician of the previous NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, played a bizarrely outsize role (for a rheumatologist) in the league’s response to accusations that it underplays the danger of football-related brain damage. A sports law expert informed of Pellman’s role told them, “This is something that should scare the hell out of the NFL as part of the concussion litigation,” referring to a 4,800-member class-action lawsuit involving retired players accusing the NFL of not adequately protecting them from the risks associated with head trauma. “If the NFL were to find themselves in front of a jury, the jury would likely interpret this as evidence of negligence,” the expert added. “It’s another rationale for the NFL to try to settle.” The story appeared as an article on “Frontline”’s site and as an “OTL” segment.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league knew nothing about what happened between ESPN and “Frontline.” Steve Fainaru did not return a request for comment. As reporter James Andrew Miller noted, NFL Network, which is owned by the NFL, has put respected reporter Andrea Kremer on the head-trauma beat.

It seems hard to believe that ESPN simply decided this was an unacceptable disservice to its partner league and therefore was shutting it down—even speaking of the massive company as a single agent betrays the oversimplified nature of this theory. The Pellman story and the others can still be viewed on ESPN’s website. The Fainauru brothers are still ESPN employees.

But it is equally hard to believe that a media organization with the kind of commitment to no-matter-where-it-goes journalism that ESPN professes to have would let the question of editorial control trip up such a fruitful partnership, particularly when their “brand” (however important that would even be) would be in the hands of “Frontline,” whose unimpeachable credentials ESPN was the first to brag about. The fact that ESPN did not even try (if futilely) to seek some sort of arrangement with “Frontline” in order to protect itself suggests an extreme abundance of caution.

In other words, I do not sense flagrantly foul play. What I sense is more morally benign, but also more practically worrying, because more systemic: A general overcarefulness at the media outlet sports fans depend upon the most.

If ESPN does not produce robust investigative sports journalism, that is particularly damaging: Investigative journalism is expensive and does not always promise high returns, and the sports variant typically does not command the same prestige at most mainstream news outlets as similar types of reporting about, say, politics or foreign affairs; Fainaru, for example, had been an investigative sports journalist at The Washington Post before 9/11, when he was re-assigned to national security and his slot was left un-filled. No other place could do the amount of great investigative sports journalism ESPN could do. If ESPN is gunshy about it, for whatever reason, then more stories will go missed, ill-serving players and retired players, but also fans.

As the network faces a challenge in Fox Sports 1, the sports network that launched this week, ESPN has made lots of moves associated with high-quality journalism. Most prominently, it hired New York Times elections-predicting guru Nate Silver to launch a web magazine modeled after Bill Simmons’ Grantland. It also hired legendary sportswriter Robert Lipsyte as ombudsman. “As I’ve written,” Lipsyte told me at the time, “when it comes to ESPN, ‘conflict of interest’ is too flabby a term.”

Follow @marcatracy

This post has been updated.

This post stated that John Barr just started at ESPN. In fact, his page states he joined ESPN in June 2003, not June 2013.