ESPN takes stand with concussion series

With the National Football League once again laying claim to fans’ Sundays, ESPN rolled out a five-day package of investigative reporting and feature stories last month across its various platforms -- ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Radio, “SportsCenter,” “Outside the Lines,” Grantland, and college and recruiting sites.

The result, Football at a Crossroads, caught the attention of the Poynter Review Project for several reasons:

• It was an ambitious and effective display of journalism and storytelling, told with every arrow in ESPN’s quiver.

• We’ve criticized ESPN for struggling with the conflicts between its journalism and its multibillion-dollar business relationships, but this package showed its journalists doing unflinching work despite such challenges.

• Finally, it showed that ESPN can be an effective advocate, using its resources to explore a subject many sports fans want to ignore.

We’ve previously challenged ESPN to use its pre-eminence in sports information and journalism to shine a light in dark corners and encourage real change -- most recently after the revelations about Jerry Sandusky and Penn State. The issue of concussions in football isn’t as clear-cut as the problem of sexual abuse of children, but in our view ESPN has a role to play here, too. The question is what that role should be and where to draw the lines between investigation and advocacy.

First, the package. With more than 27 articles and videos, the ESPN series made clear the scope of what football faces: lawsuits from thousands of players, a growing number of parents who don’t want their children to play football and a debate over how to make football safer. Underlying all this is the fact that we‘re just beginning to understand the effects of years of concussions and “subconcussive” hits on athletes’ brains -- depression, loss of impulse control, vertigo, dementia, ruined and shortened lives.

Efforts to make football safer have been underfunded and indifferently pursued. And ultimately, there might not be a solution: Brains are extremely hard to protect, and by making helmets safer, equipment makers might have actually turned them into more effective weapons. This information unfolds over a number of stories and videos. Some highlights for us:

• Peter Keating’s look at the ImPACT concussion evaluation system, the de facto standard in football and other sports despite questions about the reliability and validity of such tests. Keating explains both a complicated process and a rat’s nest of conflicts of interest with admirable clarity.

• Kevin Van Valkenburg’s examination of safety research at schools such as Virginia Tech and Stanford, and how it does and doesn’t offer hope for understanding and measuring head impacts and preventing brain trauma. The reporting is clear-eyed and powerful -- and an accompanying video is devastating, as the NFL refers questions to the very safety expert who had made it clear that he’s frustrated by the league’s lack of action.

We were equally taken with the package’s strong storytelling. Billions of dollars are at stake, yes, but this work also compellingly chronicled the impact of these injuries on people’s lives. Some highlights:

• “Outside the Lines” on the story of Donnovan Hill, a 13-year-old two-way star left with a broken neck and huge medical bills by a collision in which he led with his head. Interviewer Tom Farrey tells Hill’s story and confronts his coach about allegations that he and other Pop Warner athletes were taught to use their heads as weapons. Farrey’s approach is smart and unsentimental, and the story of Hill and his coach will stick with you.

• David Fleming’s nuanced portrait of Scott Fujita, a key figure in the New Orleans Saints bounty investigation who emerges as the face of an NFL in transition. Fleming’s fine reporting allows Fujita to speak for himself. His discussion of how he went from a schoolboy taught to be “a Spartan” to a husband and father worried about protecting his brain might be the most eloquent statement in a package with no shortage of them.

• Bridging both these categories is a terrific piece by Grantland’s Jane Leavy about Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who’s an expert in chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- and a passionate football fan. It’s both a rich character study and an unflinching exploration of the devastating effects of brain trauma on football players’ lives. Leavy’s chat with ESPN readers and segment on the “Mike & Mike” radio show were also superb introductions to the issue.

Curious about how the package came together, we talked with senior coordinating producer Dwayne Bray, who oversees ESPN’s TV enterprise unit, and Chris Buckle, ESPN.com’s senior editor for investigations.

The package’s origins date back to the spring, according to Bray. ESPN has covered the concussion issue before, but with the NFL facing a growing number of lawsuits, John Banks, NFL senior deputy editor for ESPN.com, proposed a late-summer series exploring the issue. Bray, Buckle, Banks and other producers and editors across ESPN’s various platforms met to begin shaping the coverage.

Bray said cross-platform packages are becoming more commonplace: ESPN’s content brain trust is together on the Bristol campus; reporters are used to working with their counterparts in other media; and people think first about stories before worrying about platforms.

Buckle agreed, saying that the need to evangelize cross-media efforts has passed and that stories in the Football at a Crossroads package naturally found their way to “the right platform” based on whether they were visually interesting, demanded in-depth explanations and so forth. But he noted such efforts still require “constant care and feeding. … People get it, certainly. But it doesn’t mean it happens easily.”

Although the Football at a Crossroads stories were mostly very good, we thought ESPN could have made its efforts more effective in a couple of ways.

For one, the package lacked a natural entry point and overview. A reader looking for an overview of a complicated issue had to assemble it from stories such as Mike Fish’s article, Leavy’s effort and J.R. Moehringer’s tormented piece in ESPN The Magazine.

Bray acknowledged the point but considered the suggestion a more traditional approach better suited to a newspaper series. We disagree, in part because ESPN’s work on this package will be passed around and found via search by football fans for months. Readers who didn’t read the stories in real time arrive with little guidance about how to best navigate a complicated series.

Why is that important? Because this is an issue many football fans still react to with ambivalence or denial. (For depressing proof, check out the reader comments on the articles and videos.) An overview would help fans, parents and young players educate themselves. In the absence of an overview story, ESPN should consider a wiki or topic page that would serve simultaneously as an introduction and a way of organizing this material, giving it every opportunity to be read. Perhaps this page on concussions -- which we didn’t see linked from the football package -- could be a starting point.

Finally, ESPN should weigh in more strongly on how to make football safer -- and what should happen if that proves impossible. Jeffri Chadiha offered 10 suggestions, but his take should be the beginning of that effort, not the end. We’d like to see more radical proposals and a vigorous debate involving players, physicians, parents, league officials and others, presented under the Football at a Crossroads banner and made easy for readers to find. Bray told us ESPN considered holding a television town hall on the subject but had to abandon the idea based on logistics as the season approached. Reviving that concept would be a terrific next step.

Both Bray and Buckle pushed back when we suggested ESPN ought to have advocated more forcefully.

“We have enough people doing that,” Bray said. “This project, to me, was about reporting. I think we can never have enough of that.”

The two men oversee investigative reporters, and we concede the point that advocacy isn’t a proper role for their unit. And it’s true that strong investigative reporting is its own form of advocacy, bringing issues to light and encouraging discussion. But, as Bray noted, ESPN has plenty of people who do express opinions.

The wisest thoughts on the matter -- and debates on shows such as “Outside the Lines” -- would be a valuable addition to ESPN’s efforts. With more than a million U.S. high school kids playing football, the question of brain trauma and football isn’t just a sports issue; it’s also one of public health.

Buckle told us Football at a Crossroads isn’t finished; multiple stories bearing that logo will appear from ESPN in the coming weeks and months, including in-depth investigative stories. We’re glad to hear it, and we look forward to watching how ESPN continues to explore a difficult story that needs to be told.