There are two types of lies: one, the unknowing lie, sometimes described as willful ignorance. It occurs when a person speaks unknowingly about a subject or event. There's no malice or intent, it's just a simple mistake. Two, the intentional lie; when someone knowingly and intentionally misleads another.
Six weeks before Frontline (PBS) and ESPN were scheduled to debut the investigative series League of Denial, a joint two-part investigative series about head injuries in the NFL, executives at ESPN pulled out of the production. The network released a statement last week explaining:
“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.”
Both the timing and the decision raise questions – a lot of questions.
According to a statement released by Frontline producers David Fanning and Raney Aronson, until this project, ESPN and Frontline “enjoyed a productive partnership with ESPN’s investigative program, Outside the Lines, jointly publishing and co-branding several ground-breaking articles on our respective websites and on their broadcast. We’ve been in sync on the goals of our reporting: to present the deepest accounting so far of the league’s handling of questions around the long-term impact of concussions. This editorial partnership was similar to our many other collaborations with news organizations over the years.”
So, why now, why this project?
The New York Times reported the NFL stepped in last week demanding ESPN case-and-desist their participation of League of Denial. According to the Times, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Network president Steve Bornstein, ESPN president John Skipper and ESPN executive vice president for production John Wildhack, met in New York to discuss the project.
According to the report, talks were “combative, with league officials conveying their irritation 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.”
Now we know why ESPN backed out of the joint production: money. Plain and simple this was a business decision based on politics. ESPN could not risk jeopardizing the 10-year, $15.2 billion Monday Night Football agreement with the NFL – not with a new network, Fox Sports 1, waiting in the wings to pounce on the opportunity -- so they agreed to cut ties with Frontline.
Sports are a business and the NFL is the industry’s most powerful political broker. The league will leverage their product to meet their needs and secure their brand. If ESPN refused to cut ties with Frontline on the documentary, rest assured, Goodell would use the NFL's financial power to get his way. Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1, NBC and CBS wouldn’t mind taking a swing at getting Monday Night Football.
Bennet Omalu is the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro center Mike Webster a decade ago. At the time, Omalu did know who Webster was, didn’t know who the Pittsburgh Steelers were, didn’t know what the Super Bowl was. When it was revealed that Webster suffered from massive brain trauma, most likely caused by concussions he experienced during his 17-year NFL career. Omalu continued to study the brains of deceased NFL players including Terry Long, Andre Waters and, more recently, Junior Seau. Different player, same results: brain damage.
Omalu submitted his findings to the academic journal Neurosurgery, which was later published under the headline Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player. He concluded that Webster died chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that developed as a result of head-to-head contact over his career. According to a 2009 report by GQ Magazine, the NFL was infuriated by the findings and made every attempt to smear Omalu’s work and reputation, including writing a letter to Neurosurgery in an attempt to have the story retracted.
“You can’t go against the NFL, they’ll squash you,” Omalu said in the trailer for Frontline’s League of Denial documentary.
When Omalu released his report, the NFL sent neuropathologist Peter Davies to conduct an independent study of the results. After seeing the evidence Davies told GQ, "The credit must go to Bennet Omalu. Because he first reported this and nobody believed him, nobody in the field, and I'm included in that. I did not think there was anything there. But when I looked at the stuff, he was absolutely right. I was wrong to be skeptical."
The NFL decided not to release Davies' findings and the attempt to bully Omalu into submission backfired.
Sean Pamphilon, producer/director of The United States of Football, a documentary investigating the impact of head trauma on football players, also knows what it feels like to be bullied by the NFL. While working on his documentary, Pamphilon approached the NFL for permission to use game footage in the production. When the NFL discovered what his project was about they denied his requests.
Like League of Denial, Pamphilon said ESPN refused to endorse his documentary because the network was getting heart from the NFL. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times Sunday he said, “When they [ESPN] saw the final cut, they wouldn’t endorse it. They told us they were concerned about what the NFL would say. They didn’t give a [bleep] about what the NFL Players Association said. It’s all about the relationships, and the reason [CTE] doesn’t get covered is because everybody wants the money.”
Money is at the root of the lies, deceit and bully tactics of the NFL, but no amount of money, slander and defamation of character is going to stop more than 4,000 retired players and their families from taking legal action. The players and families are building a massive case against the League and evidence is mounting as Omalu's research begins to spread and gain traction. The question is, what did the NFL know, when did they know and what did they do to stop the damage? The former players are claiming the NFL, not only knew, but concealed evidence for years about the dangers of head-to-head contact and concussions. The NFL insists the claims are false and all the medical research was made public to improve safety.
The legal proceedings are scheduled to continue in the courtroom next week, until then, you decide which type of lie the NFL is telling.