Winning ugly: ESPN journalism prevails

By the end of the show, after all the questioning, the carping and the confusion over credits, it was clear that serious journalism had won. ESPN could be proud of its contributions to the PBS Frontline documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”

However, questions remained unanswered about both ESPN and the NFL.

Exactly how much did the league know about the dangers of head trauma and when did it know? How much was actively concealed by, among other tactics, the attempted subversion of scientific inquiry? Just how was that settlement with players arrived at and how will the plaintiffs ultimately be affected?

More pertinently for the ombudsman, will ESPN’s powerhouse investigative unit go after those stories? Why didn’t it produce such a documentary in the first place? How far can ESPN go reporting on the NFL, the network’s most important sports partner? What will be the ultimate fate of “Outside the Lines,” ESPN’s most prestigious TV outlet for journalism, after its Sunday show was demoted to a lesser time slot on a lesser channel? OTL was home for much of the network’s concussion coverage.

Outside the network, the Ombud mailbag throbbed with concern as well. Correspondents praised “League of Denial” while attacking ESPN for taking its name off the show, ending a 15-month relationship with PBS. Jay McMillian of Goose Creek, S.C., charged that “ESPN basically took a dive at the behest of the NFL. Stick to showing games at this point because now your journalistic integrity is somewhere between TMZ and Mad Magazine.”

From the spring of 2012 until this past August, journalists from ESPN and Frontline worked in collaboration on the concussion story which was, in the words of one of the ESPN reporters involved, about the NFL’s “disservice” to players, parents and fans by “burying” information critical to public health. The collaboration produced nine TV and digital stories as it worked toward a two-hour documentary that aired Oct. 8.

Seven weeks before air, ESPN president John Skipper decided to remove the network’s name and logo from the PBS project. The New York Times reported at the time that ESPN had been pressured by the NFL, which Skipper denied. He said it was because ESPN did not have final editorial control, which he said he learned belatedly.

ESPN distanced itself from a documentary highly critical of the NFL just when the league didn’t need any more bad publicity. It was moving toward the trial of a reported $2 billion class-action suit representing more than 4,500 former players who claimed they sustained brain damage from playing pro football.

The league, one might assume, did not want fans, football moms and a prospective jury pool watching a show that could damage its case. In the documentary, the league was going to be charged with using its own doctors to disparage mounting evidence that head traumas in games and practices led to early dementia, Alzheimer’s and ALS, among other catastrophes. The show would portray the heartbreaking travails of revered football heroes such as Hall of Fame Pittsburgh center Mike Webster, who descended into madness, and former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who killed himself. A congresswoman compared the NFL to big tobacco in its refusal to acknowledge the dangers of its product.

It would be bad enough for the NFL that the respected PBS logo would be on the show. But the ESPN imprimatur, presumably, would give the damning accusations a seal of sports world approval, not to mention a far larger audience.

The reaction to ESPN’s debranding was mostly negative. The network was accused by the media -- and even by some inside ESPN -- of knuckling under to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Skipper has shown himself to be supportive of solid journalism as well as of Disney shareholders, but he and Goodell have a serious collaboration of their own, with billions at stake. Skipper’s job, among other tricky matters, is balancing ESPN’s built-in conflict between serious journalism and programming, which includes the demands of business partners.

At the time, Skipper told me that his decision came after seeing the Frontline trailer for the show, which had been OK’d by senior news producers. Skipper screened it and found it “sensational.” He particularly objected to its tagline -- “Get ready to change the way you see the game” -- and to the final sound bite, from neuropathologist Ann McKee. Referring to brain injuries, Dr. McKee said, “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”

Skipper told me he found that comment to be “over the top.”

And then the game suddenly changed. On Aug. 29, the NFL announced a $765 million settlement to be divided not only among the 4,500 named plaintiffs, but among some 18,000 former players or their surviving family members. A portion of the amount would be paid out over 20 years. They would be awarded specified amounts for different maladies. At least for now, there would be no trial, no legal exposure of possible wrongdoing by the new national pastime.

The media and fan consensus was that the league had won by playing on the desperation of the plaintiffs, many of whom were seriously ill and burdened by health care debt. The NFL, a tax-exempt corporation that drew an estimated $9.5 billion in revenue last year, would not be thrown into default. And the league’s critics would lose the platform of a trial.

At around the same time, it was learned that OTL’s regular Sunday show at 9 a.m. on ESPN’s prime channel would be bumped down to 8 a.m. on ESPN2. Its replacement was a new football show hosted by Colin Cowherd. The OTL time change, according to ESPN executives, had been long planned, but the mood among some disheartened journalists was that the network was trying to keep the NFL happy (especially as the Sunday OTL audience dropped by more than 50 percent from August to September).


And yet the documentary “League of Denial” was still on track, without the ESPN imprimatur but featuring lead reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, brothers who work for ESPN, and Peter Keating of ESPN The Magazine, who had been on the story for a decade.

To the surprise of some, during the week leading up to the Oct. 8 debut of the Frontline show, “SportsCenter,” “Outside the Lines” and “Olbermann,” as well as various ESPN radio programs and ESPN.com, promoted the documentary and the Fainaru brothers’ simultaneous book, “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth.” Strong, extended clips from the documentary were shown. An excerpt from the book appeared in ESPN The Magazine and was the top story on ESPN.com. This all clearly happened with Skipper’s support.

"I have every confidence in Mark and Steve and take pride in the work they have done," Skipper told me last week. "That is confirmed by our continuing to feature their reporting on OTL and online, as well as their appearances across a number of ESPN shows discussing their book and the PBS documentary. I was kept aware of the coverage and fully in support."

Cynics claimed ESPN’s promotion of the book and documentary were merely attempts to salvage its journalistic integrity. Whatever the motive, it buoyed internal journalistic spirits and drummed up interest in the book and show.

There was also some smart accompanying journalism. Don Van Natta Jr. recapped the book’s myriad findings on ESPN.com, and Tania Ganguli, one of nearly two dozen reporters recently added to ESPN’s NFL Nation staff, interviewed players on the team she covers, the Houston Texans. One of them, Ed Reed, a 12-year veteran, told her that “the business of football is shady.” Another, Arian Foster, said, “It is what it is. It’s not good for you. That’s the risk I take to provide for my family.” That was hardly NFL puffery.

In the ESPN churn cycle, Ganguli’s piece became the subject for discussion with other players and Skip Bayless on “First Take.” Scott Van Pelt, in his signature “One Big Thing” essay on the “SVP and Russillo” show, called the documentary “haunting.” But he thought it would have little impact, especially among NFL players. Former players now working as analysts for ESPN told him, he said, that they still would have played; they knew they weren’t getting into “a pillow fight.”

The Frontline show itself was a triumph -- compelling and beautifully crafted. The NFL’s silence -- it had refused to have an official presence on the show after stonewalling the Fainarus and other reporters for months -- was very loud. Credit was given to Alan Schwarz, the New York Times reporter whose relentless coverage alerted a national audience to the issue several years ago.

As much as Bob Ley, the longtime host of OTL, liked the Frontline piece, he found the moment “bittersweet” because ESPN’s name wasn’t on it. He said, “The main points were all from original OTL reporting. We’ve been on the story for a decade.”

The PBS ombudsman, the distinguished journalist Michael Getler, said, “ESPN came off well. The Fainarus and Keating upheld journalism.”

“League of Denial” was also a ratings success. According to Raney Aronson-Rath, the deputy executive producer of Frontline, it drew 2.2 million viewers. The program averages approximately 1.5 million viewers. And Frontline’s web traffic, which includes streaming video, broke the site’s record by 64 percent.

The controversy worked out well for Frontline, Aronson-Rath told me, although she regretted the disrupted collaboration. “It was a great think tank. [ESPN news executives] Vince Doria and Dwayne Bray and the ESPN team made it as good a collaboration for us as with The New York Times or ProPublica.” (The latter is a six-year-old independent nonprofit newsroom dedicated to investigative journalism with what it calls “moral force.”)

Some ESPN journalists, who asked to remain anonymous, said they were thrilled by the results of ESPN’s participation in the project, but felt a certain foreboding, even “weirdness.” Despite recent pep talks by newsroom leaders, they wondered about the future of investigative journalism on a network in which pro football is a 12-month sport and a football talk show prompted the Sunday time slot switch for OTL.

Ley also worries about “concussion fatigue” among the audience even as the topic takes on a greater importance. Scientific studies seem to indicate that the “insults” to the brain that begin in childhood football and gather impact through high school and college may be the starting points for the ravages in the brains of the Websters and Seaus. These are OTL-style stories.

“We’ve been working unfettered,” said Ley. “No one has tried to dial us back. We’ve got a piece coming up on college concussions. We’ve been assured, but we’ll watch the action.”

The Ombudsman and the Ombuddies will be watching to see what happens, too. Clara Showalter of Austin, Texas, wrote: “THIS is what I loved about ESPN. I loved ESPN that put out well done, hard hitting investigative reports. I'm blown away by the quality of Mark and Steve's work and can't help but ask ... ESPN, why did you take your name off this?”

Maybe a more important question is why didn’t ESPN do this show by itself in the first place? The short answer is that ESPN hasn’t done it before. Here’s the long answer, from Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news.

“The majority of documentaries here are done by ESPN Films, i.e. the 30-for-30 project,” he said. “By and large they are terrific story-telling vehicles, but they are director-driven films, not typically executed by investigative reporters, nor do they purport to be investigative in nature. On the news side, we’ve taken the approach that we will execute stories in a report-the-news-as-we-learn-it approach, hence the notion of doing lengthy pieces, 10-14 minutes, as the reporting occurs, rather than gather string for a one-hour or two-hour show.

“Much of the reporting in the documentary had appeared in shorter form on our air. Doesn’t mean that at times we couldn’t do those as-they-occur reports, and then compile them eventually in a documentary. But, in this case, Frontline came to us with the idea ... No more complicated than that.”

Actually, just a little more complicated. Here’s a quick recap of how the collaboration came about.

After reporting several concussion pieces for ESPN and contracting for a book on the subject, the Fainarus were asked by Phil Bennett, then managing editor of Frontline, to work on a documentary. Bennett had been an editor of Steve Fainaru’s at the Boston Globe and Washington Post. Doria and Bray gave the brothers permission to proceed, so long as they brought any breaking stories to ESPN, according to all involved. The ESPN supervisors eventually discussed more involvement, quickly agreed to by Aronson-Rath. There would be a book leave for the Fainarus, who would be paid by Frontline for the show. When I suggested to several involved that this sounded slightly seat of the pants, they sheepishly agreed; journalistic enthusiasm was way ahead of partnership paperwork.

There was plenty of enthusiasm. The Fainarus were relentless on the story (I recommend their book as well as the doc) in that outraged spirit common to cops and investigative reporters. They are not reformers. They are hard-core football fans. Mark told Jeremy Schaap, guest-hosting on “Olbermann,” that, “football is a brutal, violent sport. We know that and love it about the sport.”

Older brother Steve, who played high school football, agreed. “We love football,” he said. “The NFL did a disservice by trying to bury this information for so long because people -- especially players and parents -- need information to make informed decisions. But at the NFL level we don't want it to change. I like it raw and brutal."

They both felt that in youth and high school football, where the athletes are not grown men paid to absorb punishment, as many measures as possible should be taken to protect them. Given ESPN’s interest in youth sports, a start might be to “gather string” for a long-form documentary on the passions and pitfalls of the new world of high school football, money, concussions and all.

ESPN, in this triumphant yet bittersweet moment, has something to prove, and the means to prove it. It can continue to turn loose the Fainarus and Keating and Van Natta, and its stable of hard-nosed reporters such as T.J. Quinn, Tom Farrey, Mike Fish and Shaun Assael. There is no end of stories out there, not least the ramifications of the settlement and the sequestered information that the ESPN audience needs as parents, players and fans, to make their emotional, physical and moral choices.

Ultimately, the proof in journalism is not in good intentions or future promises. As in sports, it’s the current score. Despite what at times seemed like sloppiness or naivete or compromise, ESPN journalism won. It may have won ugly, but it won.