As PBS gets set to air a Frontline documentary on concussions in the NFL, Neil Cohen examines ESPN’s curious decision to pull out of the production.
There’s an old adage, most-often attributed to the famous circus owner, PT Barnum, that every public relations professional, like me, knows: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” And as most anyone will tell you, that statement is true if you’re Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian—celebrities (for lack of a better label) whose “brand” thrives on getting any type of attention. If you are, however, a multi-billion dollar entity like ESPN, or its parent Disney, or the NFL, you understand that there’s absolutely such a thing as bad publicity, which makes ESPN’s recent decision to pull out (sort of) of its 15-month collaboration with PBS’ Frontline on the investigative film “League of Denial” a fascinating one.
The two-part film “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crises” which airs beginning Tuesday, October 8th, on PBS is based on the reporting, and forthcoming book, of ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. The film purports that the NFL willingly and systematically denied evidence that football players were suffering severe long-term brain damage from concussions caused by repeated blows to the head—the type of blows we see on nearly every single play of every single NFL game.
While what the NFL knew or didn’t know may be up for debate, one only has to read about the tragic stories of Mike Webster, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, and their diagnoses of chronic traumatic encephalopathy post-mortem, to know that there really isn’t any debate on whether football is dangerous for certain players.
A more interesting question is this: if everyone “knows” about football-related concussions, why did ESPN end its partnership with Frontline just two months prior to the film airing, and who made them do it? To try to answer this question, let’s look at what we think we know, analyze some things that do not make sense from a PR perspective and speculate (emphasis on speculate) on just what may have happened behind the scenes at ESPN, Disney and the NFL.
What We Know or Think We Know
1) ESPN, led by the brothers Fainaru, partnered with Frontline to produce League of Denial. They had been working on the project for at least 15 months—all of which must have been known to executives at ESPN, Disney and the NFL. The NFL declined to be interviewed or participate in the film, thus proving that they knew about it, likely early on in film production.
2) On August 22, ESPN announced that it would remove its name, branding and credit for the film because “it would not have editorial control over the content.” According to The New York Times, this decision came shortly after a lunch between NFL and ESPN big wigs, including commissioner Roger Goodell and ESPN President John Skipper, in which it has been reported that the NFL pressured ESPN to quit the Frontline project.
3) Frontline producers were caught off guard by ESPN’s decision, especially given that they had already produced and aired nine TV and online segments on ESPN and Frontline, and created a website called Concussion Watch that tallies all NFL players’ concussions and head injuries (26 so far this year, FYI).
4) Most interestingly, on August 29th, the NFL settled it’s litigation with nearly 4,500 retired football players for $765 million, without admitting any guilt, and for less than the $2 billion the players were seeking.* One would think the NFL knew it was planning to settle (or at least strongly considering the possibility) before they had their fateful lunch with ESPN.
For my money, ESPN’s decision reeks of classic bad corporate decision-making, where executives at the top cannot accurately forecast how a decision they make will look to employees or the public. This happens all the time.
First, the thought that simply removing their name, logo, and credit for “League of Denial” would immediately absolve them from any involvement is completely flawed, and not just because it’s own reporters (duh!) were the driving force behind the film, but because they should have foreseen that all the resulting coverage would practically guarantee that viewers would know ESPN was involved and bailed at the last minute. Sure, a few years (maybe even months) from now, the controversy will fade but every time anyone does a google search related to the film, ESPN’s bailout will jump right out at them for eternity.
ESPN’s own statements are void of any real coherent reason for bailing on Frontline. ESPN said in a statement that, “Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the ‘Frontline’ documentaries…the use of ESPN’s marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control.”
That statement was almost immediately refuted by Frontline producer Raney Aronson-Rath. As reported in The New York Times: “ESPN executives had for more than a year understood the ground rules of the collaboration: “Frontline” would keep editorial control of what it televised or put on its Web sites, and ESPN would have control of everything it televised or posted on the Web.” Perhaps a better tactic for ESPN would have been to shout, “Hey everyone, is that Tim Tebow over there?”
ESPN also should have been able to see how this decision would affect its own news staff. Can anyone think of a worse way to show their respected news staff that the commercial side of the business is the head wagging the news’ tail? If viewers weren’t already doing so, now they really will question anytime ESPN does a story that is too NFL-friendly.
A newsroom’s lifeblood is credibility, and after all, credibility is like virginity. Once you lose it, you can’t get it back (I borrowed that). If Bob Ley of “Outside the Lines” and the Fainaru brothers are working for Bryant Gumbel next year, we’ll all know the true impact of ESPN’s decision.
Now, the common belief is that the NFL pressured ESPN to quit the “League of Denial” project, but that doesn’t exactly make sense to me. First, one has to think they would have killed ESPN’s involvement earlier than 15 months into it. Did it somehow take 15 months and countless stories on ESPN for the NFL to wake up and say “Gee, maybe we should meet with them?” I don’t think so.
Second, if the NFL was as upset as reported by the New York Times, and ESPN feared that they might anger their partner enough to lose Monday Night Football in the future, then why oh why would ESPN continue to promote the film as late as last week. Perhaps ESPN is trying to placate its upset news division, but one would think that if the NFL had so much influence, ESPN would have dropped all coverage, or at least reduced or buried their stories. Perhaps the NFL just wanted ESPN to “kiss the ring” one more time (as it did when it pressured the network to cancel Playmakers) and didn’t care about any repercussions.
The most likely scenario and one that’s been alluded to in some news coverage is that it was a Mickey Mouse decision based on some nervous whiskers in Burbank. A simple phone call from Disney headquarters to Bristol is likely all it took.
However, as is often the case in these situations, a simple solution was available to ESPN and the NFL all along—do nothing. Sometimes doing nothing is the hardest thing to do. It’s hard to go into your boss’ office and say that your strategy to fix a problem is “nothing.” However, if you’re like me, you had no idea this film was even being made until the controversy unfolded; Frontline is not exactly a hotbed for Nielsen ratings, after all, let alone the place where the average football fan turns to for determining their fantasy team line-up for the week.
We may never know the truth behind the controversy, but I can guarantee that the folks at Frontline couldn’t have asked for better publicity for their documentary—bad publicity just depends on which side your on—and sometimes the tail wins.
* Editor’s note: Though only 4,500 former players were party to the suit settled by the NFL, 18,000 retired players are eligible to receive compensation as part of the settlement.