Reported NFL Influence over ESPN Latest Blow to Integrity on Concussions

Michael Schottey@SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterAugust 23, 2013

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 25:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks at the podium in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 25, 2013 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

New York Times columnist James Miller is reporting that the NFL pressured ESPN to drop out of an investigative report on NFL concussions with PBS' Frontline. 

Now, Miller literally wrote the book on the "Worldwide Leader in Sports." So, he's known to have sources inside and out of ESPN's setup in both Bristol, Conn., and New York City. Miller says that the pressure was applied at a lunch that was attended by ESPN president John Skipper and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell among others. 

From Miller's report in The New York Times:

At the combative meeting, the people said, league officials conveyed their displeasure with the direction of the documentary, which is expected to describe a narrative that has been captured in various news reports over the past decade: the league turning a blind eye to evidence that players were sustaining brain trauma on the field that could lead to profound, long-term cognitive disability.

PR head Greg Aiello told Bleacher Report that the NFL categorically denies any pressure was applied to ESPN during the lunch, noting that the league office routinely has meetings with its business partners. Per Aiello:

It is not true that we pressured ESPN to pull out of the film. The lunch was requested several weeks ago by ESPN. We meet with our business partners on a regular basis, and this was not unusual.

ESPN, for its part, denied the report via a release to the media, per John Ourand of Sports Business Journal:

If Miller's report is true, it puts the NFL in a tricky position when it comes to current concussion litigation. Over 200 former players are suing the NFL regarding its longtime stance that concussions are not a widespread and cumulative problem. 

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It's important to note that the former players are not suing because they received concussions in the NFL. The NFL is an intrinsically dangerous game—fans, players, the league and just about everyone else realize that.

No, the players are contending that the NFL deliberately misled them about the long-term severity of concussions. The suits don't blame the league for the concussions themselves, but for fraud and negligence surrounding the injury. 

This report comes on the heels of new information surrounding Dr. Elliot Pellman, the man who spent years as the NFL's foremost "expert" on concussions. The quotes around "expert" there relay how little Pellman has shown to actually know about concussions even though the NFL has paid him under the auspices that he does.

Pellman, a rheumatologist (note: a doctor that does not treat brain injuries), served as former commissioner Paul Tagliabue's personal physician for nine years. The NFL's reply to that report (by ESPN's Outside the Lines of all places) was that Pellman started seeing Tagliabue as a patient after he was hired by the NFL and that there was no quid pro quo involved in the relationship. 

So, on the one hand, we have ESPN breaking open the concussion storyline with new information on its journalistic end. On the other, we have the business side of the company reportedly agreeing to withhold its full-throated reporting on the matter to protect business interests. 

Former NFL player and concussion litigant Lomas Brown has appeared on ESPN's First Take and served the company as an NFL analyst for nearly 10 years. He was released from the company the day before Miller's report and told Bleacher Report that this reporter was the second person to note the coincidental timing of his release. He says that he "hopes (his) support of the concussion litigation wasn't part of (his) being released."

Brown says that ESPN has not "put its best foot forward" with concussion news and noted fellow former player Brian Dawkins as one of the few ESPN analysts that will really step forward on the matter. While ESPN has covered the topic, Brown believes it could have done more with its resources.

When asked why ESPN doesn't cover concussions more in-depth, Lomas responded: "We know why," inferring, in my opinion, that the business interests of the network control its journalistic integrity. 

NFLPA assistant executive director George Atallah echoed many of those sentiments in talking with Bleacher Report this morning, saying he was "disappointed" by the story. Like Brown, Atallah said:

Here's the problem that I see with this event: Regardless of how it came about, it is a disappointing reflection of the business interest trumping journalistic integrity.

As to the veracity of The Times' report and the truthfulness of the NFL's denial, Atallah said: "You either have to believe the league, or you don't." When asked if he believed the league, Atallah responded with a long vocal pause and said, "I believe that [the NFL is] interested in control" and noted the long history of the NFL trying to control the media message on big issues. 

Atallah also noted (in the interest of full disclosure) that the NFLPA had no involvement in the Frontline project and called the integrity of both the program and the ESPN journalists involved—Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada—"above reproach."

As the league tries to contend that it has never misled on the severity of concussions and attempts to convince suburban moms that football can be made safer if only kids are taught to tackle correctly, this report sheds new light on the NFL's potential desire to sweep the story under the rug. 

If true, this news could be both Exhibit A in the aforementioned concussion litigation and a black mark both for the league's integrity and the journalistic endeavors of one of its major business partners. 

Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route. Unless otherwise noted: all quotes were obtained first-hand by the columnist. 

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