This is what happens when you cover the product and you are the product.
There's a reason ESPN has pulled out of its coproduction with PBS on a documentary for Frontline. The piece, which was 15 months in the making, was called League of Denial, and was based on the investigative work of the Fainaru brothers - who write for ESPN. If the name Mark Fainaru-Wada sounds familiar, it's because he's been at the forefront of the ESPN's investigations into PED use in baseball for years, and has a spotless reputation for journalistic integrity.
League of Denial's focus is on how the NFL has handled the issue of concussions and their possible consequences among its players. Anyone who has been paying attention to the topic, of course, knows that any investigation into that topic was not likely to prove flattering to the NFL. Over the years, the league's response to concerns about health issues stemming from concussions has ranged from stonewalling to something that looks suspiciously similar to faking evidence indicating that there was no problem. When the pressure finally mounted on the league to look into concussions, rather than partner with outside experts, it put together its own "Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury", headed by a rheumatologist with a misrepresented medical background. The intent was right there in the name: "Mild". It's no surprise that the Committee found no evidence linking concussions and health issues - not when its method of gathering data was to mail out surveys to select former players.
The ones who were homeless, or suffering from dementia, or hospitalized, or dead probably didn't respond.
There was more. Attempts to discredit the researcher, Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose work clearly indicated a link between concussions and later health issues in ex-players. Burying a report corroborating Omalu's findings. Things like that. Only with increased public pressure - and lawsuits from former players struggling to survive - and an ever-increasing body count of former players suffering from concussion-induced mental illnesses - has the NFL moved, with great fanfare but not necessarily very far, on the issue.
That's the story that League of Denial would almost certainly be telling. That's the story the NFL is probably not pleased with. And that's why ESPN pulled out of something that would make its most profitable business partner look bad.
All the mealy-mouthed handwaving, of course, makes it look worse. ESPN's formal reason for backing out of the coproduction was concerns about "editorial control", but that sort of thing generally isn't a surprise 15 months into a coproduction that has already produced a fair bit of content. The NFL, for its part, is claiming that it did not tell ESPN to pull out, which should sound familiar to anyone who's ever seen playground bully claim he never touched the kid whose lunch money is now in his pocket. At a certain point, after all, the kid just hands the cash over instead of getting beaten, or have we all forgotten Playmakers?
The fact remains that the NFL is what drives ESPN - drives its ratings, drives its content, drives its ability to charge ungodly rates from every cable and Dish Network subscriber. If the NFL is unhappy, then ESPN is unhappy. If the NFL is unhappy with ESPN, well, ESPN is going to be very unhappy. And while the network has done some commendable work reporting on the issue so far, and claims it will continue to follow the story, it's easy to be cynical here. One does not mess, after all, with the golden goose unless one is tired of gold.
As for League of Denial, it will go forward as scheduled, as will the Fainaru brothers' book of the same name. Presumably the documentary will come out, it will be seen by fewer people than watch a Panthers-Ravens preseason game, and it will be decried by defenders of football as a hatchet job or politically motivated or other, even less sensible stuff. The "pointy-headed intellectual elites hate football and want to take it away from you" narrative pretty much writes itself, after all. The NFL is a league where players say they'd rather get hit in the head than in the knee, where fans call in to talk radio to vehemently complain that even the slightest protections afforded to players to guard them from concussions make the game too wussified, where the owners have no interest in paying out to cover the medical bills of the men who made them their money.
In a saner world, this might be the point when more people start asking questions. Instead, it's likely to be the point when more people defend the NFL because they like watching football, and tell themselves that "the players signed up for this" and "knew what they were in for". And if they don't watch League of Denial, if they find the excuse that ESPN pulled out sufficient to not check it for themselves, then the NFL got what it was hoping for when it leaned on ESPN to bail. The mere fact of ESPN's involvement has become politicized, part of the image tug-of-war over the documentary that the NFL has started.
Which leaves us with the simple truth: ESPN can't both cover the product and be the product, not when the coverage puts the product at risk.