ESPN denies it quit head injuries documentary over NFL ties

Fri Aug 23, 2013 3:10pm EDT

Aug 23 (Reuters) - ESPN said it has pulled out of a documentary with PBS' "Frontline" about head injuries in the National Football League, but the Walt Disney co-owned sports network denied a media report that its decision was due to pressure from the NFL.

The New York Times reported on Friday that the league had expressed its displeasure with the direction of the "Frontline" documentary at a lunch last week attended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Network President Steve Bornstein, ESPN President John Skipper and ESPN Executive Vice President for Production John Wildhack.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the lunch was requested several weeks ago by ESPN and denied the Times' report that the league demanded that the network withdraw from the project.

"We meet with our business partners on a regular basis and this was not unusual," McCarthy said via e-mail. "It is not true that we pressured ESPN to pull out of the film."

Two ESPN reporters had contributed work to the documentary, called "Frontline's League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis." The network had originally agreed to let the production use its name and logos in a co-branding arrangement with "Frontline."

ESPN spokesman Chris LaPlaca said the network ended its association with "Frontline" because it did not have editorial control over what appeared on the series.

"In hindsight, we should have reached this conclusion much sooner. That was a mistake on our part," LaPlaca said.

Producers for "Frontline" said ESPN's decision will not affect the content, production or October release of the documentary. "We regret ESPN's decision to end a collaboration that has spanned for 15 months," they said in a statement published online on Thursday.

ESPN, a major driver of Disney's profit, broadcasts the NFL's "Monday Night Football," one of the highest-rated programs on television, under a multi-billion dollar deal with the league.

In September 2011, the NFL announced an eight-year, $15.2 billion extension with ESPN for "Monday Night Football," a deal that included TV and digital rights.

After the lunch with NFL executives, ESPN twice aired an episode of its "Outside the Lines" series that focused on the concussion issue, spokesman LaPlaca said.

"The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL," he said. "As we have in the past, including as recently as Sunday, we will continue to cover the concussion story aggressively through our own reporting."

At a meeting with reporters on Wednesday, before ESPN's decision to pull out of the "Frontline" production became public, ESPN President John Skipper praised the sports network's coverage of head injuries in the NFL.

"We pride ourselves on being able to manage the balance of being in business with the league and doing journalism," Skipper said. "I think a lot of the best investigation and reporting on this issue has been on ESPN."