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In report on NFL injuries, ESPN opts for the sidelines

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The NFL and one of its broadcast partners, ESPN, are getting some blowback after ESPN pulled out of an investigative project with Frontline on PBS about head injuries in the National Football League. The league denies pressuring ESPN in any way.

PBS made this announcement yesterday. ESPN responded:

Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the Frontline documentaries, there will be no co-branding involving ESPN on the documentaries or their marketing materials. The use of ESPN’s marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control. As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting.

The NFL has been known to be vigiliant in protecting its brand, says John Ourand, media reporter at Sports Business Journal.

“It’s called The Shield. They love to protect The Shield,” says Ourand. “In fact, that’s one of the reasons they started their own network, the NFL Network. And what’s ironic is that on the NFL Network, they do cover the concussion issue … so they’re not scared of this, they’re not shy of this. That’s what makes what happened so much more confusing.”

The NFL is big business for ESPN, as well as other sports-broadcasting networks like FOX, CBS and NBC. ESPN alone pays the NFL $1 billion for Monday Night Football and highlight rights, and they just signed a deal for the next decade for close to $2 billion a year.

“Journalistically, this is a huge black eye for ESPN,” Ourand adds. “I think it shows that ESPN bowed to some sort of pressure that was given by the NFL, and I think that’s a real shame because ESPN has spent the past couple of years hiring some of the best sports journalists out there. They have taken people from the New York Times, some of the best newspapers, in order to get in there and cover these types of topics. What I’m going to be looking for is whether those people that came over find this untenable, because they’re hirable people, and if they start to leave, then we’ll know something’s up.”

But with business partners like the NFL, can ESPN hold on to its editorial integrity?

“That is literally the billion dollar question. I think they can,” says Ourand. “I think that there’s enough of a division between the business side of ESPN and the editorial side of ESPN. But the problem is, it’s all called ESPN.”

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