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Report: NFL pressured ESPN to abandon PBS concussion project


On Thursday, ESPN cut the cord on its much-hyped PBS Frontline partnership regarding concussions in pro football. In so doing, ESPN denied that it had received any pressure from the NFL.

On Friday, of course, a report has emerged that the NFL did indeed pressure ESPN to quit biting the hand it’s currently feeding more than $1 billion per year.

According to James Andrew Miller of the New York Times, “two people with direct knowledge of the situation” contend that the NFL placed pressure on ESPN to exit the joint venture with PBS. Per the report, Commissioner Roger Goodell was directly involved in the effort.

It’s the second time less than a decade that the league has pushed Bristol when it comes to football-related programming. ESPN pulled the plug on the fictional show Playmakers based on clear and obvious nudging from the NFL.

“Everyone feels that it’s a rather gross mischaracterization of our sport,” former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said regarding Playmakers in September 2003. Not long after that, the show was gone.

Given the Playmakers example and prior ESPN reports on head injuries, we should have seen this one coming. Last November, ESPN recklessly overstated the relevance of past rulings of the league’s disability board regarding concussions, erroneously suggesting that the decisions provided a “smoking gun” for the concussion lawsuits.

The tipping point may have come this weekend, when Steve Fainaru and John Barr (whose flimsy-yet-breathless report last year regarding the Saints and wiretapping has never been corroborated) raised questions about Dr. Eliot Pellman, former head of the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. Apart from continuing to ignore that the NFLPA (and thus, necessarily, all players) had a seat at the MTBI Committee’s table, the article points out that Dr. Pellman was at one point Tagliabue’s physician -- and argues that this undermines Pellman’s credibility.

It’s just as likely, however, that Pellman will seem even more credible in the eyes of any jury that ever resolves the concussion cases. If the Commissioner was willing to entrust his own health to Pellman, then maybe Pellman wasn’t a complete quack. The ESPN report doesn’t mention that fairly obvious possibility.

The relentless effort to dig up dirt, which arguably was on display in connection with Barr’s effort to join in the Saints feeding frenzy of 2012, prompted NFL spokesman Greg Aiello to accuse an ESPN reporter of “being on a witch hunt.”

If that’s what the NFL believed, it’s no surprise that the NFL communicated privately to ESPN a message similar to the one that was conveyed publicly by Tagliabue nearly 10 years ago.

That’s not to say an NFL broadcast partner should shy away from criticism. Even though we partner with NBC, we’ve previously pushed the league on flaws regarding the in-game procedures for spotting players who may have had concussions and properly assessing whether they should return to play. To this day, the league has failed in our opinion to do enough to identify players with potential concussions and thoroughly examine them before letting them play again. But there’s a difference between fair criticism and over-the-top twisting of facts in the hopes of advancing an agenda.

The November 2012 report regarding the disability awards and the more recent look at Dr. Pellman feel more like a gratuitous exercise in “gotcha,” and not a balanced examination of reality. For that reason, it’s hard to fault the NFL for asking ESPN why it would treat a business partner this way.