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Blurred Lines: ESPN, NFL partnership takes its toll on objective journalism

There were many denials about the reported reasons ESPN backed out of its arrangement with PBS’ “Frontline” to investigate the NFL’s approach to concussions in football and subsequent impact on players, but the whole thing still stinks. By removing itself from the relationship, the Bristol-based sports conglomerate sparked considerable conjecture – and direct accusations – that its business arrangement with the NFL led to the exit.

If that’s the case, consider it another roundhouse delivered to journalism.

It’s no secret that many news outlets have accused the league of looking past scientific evidence about the long-term effects of head trauma suffered regularly by players. There is a lawsuit brought by several former players alleging just that. Despite recent efforts designed to limit concussions, the NFL is viewed by some as a heartless corporate entity that piled up profits on the damaged brains of its employees. One can imagine commissioner Roger Goodell and his Park Avenue pals – not to mention the league’s 32 owners – will not be too happy by the upcoming “Frontline” two-part series that airs in October. That ESPN, which televises “Monday Night Football” and hundreds of hours of ancillary NFL programming each year, was part of it couldn’t have been too popular with the league.

Friday, The New York Times ran an article that included the description of a luncheon held last week that included Goodell, ESPN executives Jack Wildhack and John Skipper and NFL Network president Steve Bornstein. The Times reported that at the sitdown, which featured some heated exchanges, the NFL crew expressed its displeasure with ESPN’s role. Although both sides deny the luncheon ever happened, it’s hard to believe the venerable Gray Lady is guilty of fabricating such a meeting. It hasn’t lasted nearly 162 years by just making stuff up.

The upshot is that PBS will go it alone from here on out. The timing of ESPN’s decision is extremely curious. Why, after 15 months of working together, would ESPN back out, if not for pressure from the outside? The network had to know that there would be a pile of outrage and accusations that it was doing so to assuage the NFL.

It’s hard to blame ESPN for the move, since it needs the NFL to remain on top of the all-sports mountain. Were the network to anger the biggest league around, it might not get a chance to renew its Monday Night contract, even though it pays an exorbitant $1.8 billion a year to air one game a week and is not allowed to show playoff contests. Rights to live events are key to success in the world of TV sports and nobody has a better lineup than does ESPN. Surrendering any leverage with the NFL would be bad business.

One could have easily seen Fox, CBS or NBC pulling a similar U-turn, were the NFL to express similar dissatisfaction with their reportorial behavior. The growing number of broadcast outlets means the league has more potential suitors than ever before. If a current partner won’t play ball, somebody else most certainly will.

That’s why it’s getting less and less possible to consider anything’s being aired about professional or collegiate sports as objective. If ESPN backed out of its relationship with “Frontline” because of NFL pressure, how then can anybody expect the network and its other platforms to provide an unvarnished look at the league? Just the simple mention of ESPN as a “business partner” in the NFL response to the NYT story shows how the lines have been blurred between journalism and commerce. When any news outlet moves into a relationship with the people or entities it covers, objectivity suffers.

Don’t expect this to improve in the coming years. Leagues and teams will use their product to create advantages over news outlets that want access and the rights to air games, highlights and related content. If outlets like ESPN want to have the ability to profit from the NFL, MLB, NBA and college leagues, it will continue to give consideration to the wishes of said sporting concerns or risk losing market share to competitors that will. The NFL wants to be a highly profitable concern, and so do ESPN – along with Fox, NBC and CBS.

We may never find out for sure if the high-powered luncheon drove ESPN to back away from “Frontline” and the expected critical look at the NFL’s response to concussions, but as news outlets and those they cover get ever closer, the losers are fans. They want real information but instead are getting sanitized offerings designed to create interest, rather than presenting the truth. As the techniques for doing this become more nuanced, people will find it impossible to tell the difference between a well-crafted promotional piece that includes some information and a thoroughly researched piece of reporting that reveals the real story.

No matter what the cause, last week’s move was another body blow to the journalistic profession, which had better cover up, because more are coming.

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