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Pierce: ESPN's credibility suffers self-inflicted wound

Published August 27, 2013 6:08 pm

TV • Pulling out of PBS program makes it the Documentary NFL Didn't Want You To See
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

ESPN came to a fork in the road and chose a path that delivered a blow to its credibility.

The Worldwide Leader In Sports, reportedly bowing to pressure from the NFL, pulled its name off a co-production with PBS — a two-part documentary titled "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis."

The documentary is damning. And that's not a strong enough word. After watching a few minutes of clips, I breathed a sigh of relief that my son didn't play football.

(And I am not a football hater. It has always been my favorite sport.)

"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," ESPN said in a statement.

The documentary will go ahead as planned. The only change is that the ESPN name and logo have been removed.

But ESPN's statement made it sound as if it had just slapped its logo on the "Frontline" documentary and had no real input. But the two hours are based on the work of ESPN investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru Wada, who are also writing a book about the concussion issue — also titled "League of Denial."

And ESPN's Dwayne Bray was the senior coordinating producer, described by "Frontline's" deputy executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath as "central to the success of this."

While both PBS and ESPN made it clear the NFL had refused to cooperate, just two weeks ago Bray went out of his way to insist that the NFL could not and would not interfere.

"I think one of the interesting things about ESPN is it's sort of a bifurcated company," Bray said. "You do have the business partners on one side, but you also have the editorial production side."

He went on to describe ESPN as "the gold standard for sports journalism," adding that while "League of Denial" will not make the NFL look good, "The NFL is going to have to understand that."

I, for one, feel sorry for Bray, whose bosses cut his legs out from under him.

The NFL insists that it put no pressure on ESPN. ESPN insists it received no pressure.

Pretty much no one believes that. I certainly don't.

This is what happens when you're in business with the people you cover. ESPN didn't have a lot of credibility when it came to reporting on the BCS when ESPN dollars were propping up that rotten system.

The same can be said of MLB, NBA, NFL and college leagues ranging from the Mountain West to the SEC — and individual teams like Texas and BYU.

In theory, ESPN could build a wall between its journalists and the cable giant's business partners. But not when that wall has holes like the one that allowed ESPN to cancel the highly rated football drama "Playmakers" in 2003 — under pressure from the NFL. Or when ESPN suddenly pulls its name off "League of Denial."

In truth, ESPN's withdrawal could well be the best thing that could happen to the documentary. PBS couldn't buy the kind of publicity that has already been generated. And that will be redoubled when "League of Denial" airs in October.

All of a sudden, this went from being a damning documentary to "The Documentary the NFL Didn't Want You to See."

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.