It’s pretty tempting to presume ESPN’s recent decision to disassociate themselves from PBS Frontline’s forthcoming “League Of Denial : The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” was a cowardly move designed to placate a media partner who provides the very content that’s the network’s lifeblood. According to anonymous insiders polled by The Nation’s Dave Zirin, your presumption was totally on the money. Sure, it’s bad news for journalism, but at least you’re awesome at presuming stuff!
In theory, there is supposed to be a wall at ESPN between the business side and the journalism side. But, like many walls across the earth, it tends to exist to separate the powerful from the powerless. One former employee said to me, “The ESPN wall is about as effective as the Great Wall of China. It can look impressive but there are plenty of ways around it and lots of holes. It’s an idea but like many ideas it doesn’t work in practice.”
A current ESPN journalist said to me, “I don’t think those on the business side are bad people. But what you have are people with utterly opposed jobs. Their job is to keep the broadcast partners happy. Our job is to investigate them. That theoretically could produce a creative tension but the power imbalance is ridiculous. It’s like they’re Mike Tyson and we’re Evander’s ear.”
“People talk about the divide between journalism side and the business side but this has revealed just how bifurcated even the journalism side has become,” said one journalist at the network. “Many here who are supposed to be on that side don’t care because they’re not really journalists. It’s not their fault. They’re producers. They’re television personalities. They’re entertainers. In a month they’ll stop caring [about the decision to pull out of League of Denial] if they even care now.”
One top journalist described (the potential conflict) as follows : “Our corporate strategy right now is to go all-in on football no matter the cost [to journalistic integrity]. We are going all-in on football at a time when you have damn near 5,000 people suing the sports that made them famous [for head trauma]. You have empirical evidence that something is going on with this game that is really dangerous. We are now carrying water for a game that is on a deeply problematic trajectory. We are going all in on this sport and this sport is in peril.”