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 decision by Skipper to end the relationship "was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL." The network pulled out of the partnership because it did not have editorial control over what appeared on the series, he said.
"In hindsight, we should have reached this conclusion much sooner," LaPlaca said. "That was a mistake on our part."
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.
NFL officials were unhappy with the crux of the "Frontline" documentary, the Times reported, citing two unnamed sources. The film is expected to show that the league had ignored evidence that its players' were being exposed to brain injuries on the field that could cause long-term disability, the paper said.
New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha said the paper stood by its story.
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.
Skipper, in a statement on Friday, said ESPN had been a leader in reporting on concussions among NFL players since the mid-1990s, including a recent report on its "Outside the Lines" program that aired twice after the lunch with NFL executives.
"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," the reporters who contributed to the "Frontline" documentary.
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine and Liana B. Baker; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Leslie Gevirtz)