A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
ESPN is biting one of the biggest hands that feeds it. As the NFL reels from an ongoing concussion crisis and a recent spate of player violence, the Disney-owned sports network is on the forefront of the investigation.
That’s despite ESPN’s new $15.2 billion deal to air Monday Night Football and other lucrative telecasts through 2021 (at about $1.9 billion per year), with the league providing a cornerstone of its programming. ESPN’s Outside the Lines on Nov. 16 uncovered damning documents showing that in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the league’s medical experts were still publicly denying a link between football and crippling brain disease, the NFL board paid $2 million in disability payments to multiple players, including Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who died in 2002 at age 50. The reporting was conducted by brothers Steve Fainaru (a Pulitzer Prize winner) and Mark Fainaru-Wada in an investigative partnership with PBS’ long-running Frontline. (The Fainaru’s story also ran on the Frontline website.)
Now the Frontline-ESPN investigation is expanding to culminate in a full-length Frontline documentary set to launch the series’ 32nd season in September. The documentary is timed to the release of Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada's book on the concussion crisis to be published by Crown Books -- and the start of the 2013 NFL season.
For Frontline, the ESPN joint venture provides access to seasoned sports journalists. But it is a unique collaboration for Outside the Lines, and one that signals a commitment to follow the concussion story where it leads in spite of ESPN’s status as an NFL partner.
“While ESPN gets that reputation of being the fan network and being softer, without being too defensive, I think a lot of that’s misplaced,” Fainaru-Wada tells THR. “I’ve had zero instances in which anybody has gotten in the way of anything we wanted to do.”
With nearly 4,000 retired players suing the league over the link between football and long-tern brain damage, and the recent suicide of former NFL star Junior Seau and murder-suicide of player Jovan Belcher, the $6 billion NFL business is under a microscope -- even as its ratings dominate TV. Producer Tom Jennings says Frontline producers are interviewing retired and current players, but they have yet to land an interview with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or other representatives of the league.
“We’re communicating with them and trying to get their comments on what we’re doing,” says Jennings. “They have not responded in an overt fashion. But we continue to reach out.”
If the NFL is displeased with ESPN's coverage, the league has not expressed that sentiment to ESPN executives, according to network sources. And one source noted that some in the NFL gave the Fainaru's story about a recent Boston University study that found 28 new cases of chronic brain damage in football players (including 15 NFL veterans) high marks for acknowledging the doubts surrounding the study's conclusions.
Nevertheless, Fainaru-Wada says he's "not optimistic” that the NFL ultimately will make executives available for on-camera interviews.
"We have put ourselves out there repeatedly to make sure they know exactly what we’re doing," he said. "We flew to New York to sit down with the league [at NFL headquarters]. But so far, they’ve given no indication that they’re going to cooperate."
Email: Marisa.Guthrie; Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie