ESPN yesterday backed out of a documentary on NFL concussions that it's been working on with PBS' Frontline for more than a year, in a surprise, last-minute move. Today, the New York Times hints at an explanation: The NFL pressured the network into it. Commissioner Roger Goodell and other top league executives met with ESPN's president last week to express their unhappiness about the film, in what the Times describes as a "combative meeting." The paper cites two anonymous sources with "direct knowledge of the situation."
The league says it never asked ESPN to back out of the project, and an ESPN spokesman says the network pulled out because it would lack editorial control over what Frontline aired. But Frontline's deputy executive producer says ESPN agreed to split control long ago. She says that when her ESPN contacts broke the news to her, "it didn't appear that it was their decision." As recently as Aug. 6, at a Television Critics Association event, an ESPN producer said the collaboration had been marvelous, adding, "And the NFL is going to have to understand that." The documentary airs October 8 and15.