WASHINGTON -- In the wake of a report that ESPN bowed out of a joint investigative project with PBS on NFL player concussions, the union representing players said it was a "disappointing day for journalism" if the sports network caved on the series out of business concerns.
"I think any time that business interests get in the way of telling an important story like the one 'Frontline' was working on, I think that that's a sad day, regardless of why or who or what the circumstances were," George Atallah, spokesman for the NFL Players Association, told HuffPost.
The New York Times published a report Friday morning tracing ESPN's decision to part ways with PBS directly to pressure from the league. According to the report, which cited two anonymous sources, two ESPN executives met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Network President Steve Bornstein in a "combative" lunchtime meeting in midtown Manhattan last week. "[L]eague officials conveyed their displeasure with the direction of the documentary," the Times reported.
The documentary, "League of Denial," which is set to air on Oct. 8 and Oct. 15 on PBS, is based on the investigative work of ESPN reporters and brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada. It's expected to chronicle the ways in which the NFL ignored obvious signs that its players were sustaining life-long brain trauma on the field.
The league said in a statement that it never pressured ESPN to cut ties with the project, and the network has denied that it pulled out over concerns that it could jeopardize its relationship with the league, according to Deadspin. ESPN said it decided to scrap its involvement due to a lack of editorial control in the project, but PBS told the Times that ESPN was never supposed to have such control under the agreement.
Atallah said the players' union was never involved in the project and that it turned down interview requests for the film. "We thought it was better for players' voices to be out there," Atallah said, rather than have the union speak for them.
He noted that the players themselves generate and share in the broadcast revenues, although they weren't part of any deals or decisions that may have been hatched over the Manhattan lunch last week.
ESPN has a multi-billion dollar contract with the NFL to air Monday Night Football.
"The players are broadcast partners, too," he said. "They get 55 percent of television revenues, so its not like the NFL is a partner in and of itself. We're a partner as well, we're in this business, and the revenues that this game generates benefit players as much as owners. The decisions that networks make can't be made in a vacuum, within their relationship with the NFL alone."
"There has been no bigger story off the field than player safety and concussions," Atallah added, noting that the union still had a lot of respect for individual ESPN reporters. "If a business decision is going to trump journalistic integrity, we have a problem."
In a statement sent to HuffPost, ESPN President John Skipper noted that the network recently aired a "lengthy, thorough, well-reported segment" on concussions on its "Outside the Lines" program.
"I want to be clear about ESPN’s commitment to journalism and the work of our award-winning enterprise team," Skipper said. "We will continue to report this story and will continue to support the work of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. We have respect as well for the efforts of the people at Frontline."
This post has been updated with new comment from ESPN.