JOHN DOHERTY: Concussion issue leaves ESPN, NFL & PBS in hot water

2013-08-26T21:00:00Z JOHN DOHERTY: Concussion issue leaves ESPN, NFL & PBS in hot waterJohn Doherty Times Columnist
August 26, 2013 9:00 pm  • 

For the past 15 months the PBS Series “Frontline” and ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” had been collaborating on a series of stories regarding football — specifically the NFL — and concussions.

That is until last week, when ESPN announced it was pulling out of the partnership due to its inability to exert “editorial control” over what was to be the culmination of the two networks’ efforts: the October season premiere of Frontline entitled “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”

The show will still be running, with reporting done by ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, and based on their similarly titled upcoming book.

Since the announcement by ESPN, the Connecticut-based network has been roundly criticized for caving into pressure from the NFL.

The New York Times has reported that a rather contentious luncheon among executives of the NFL, ESPN, and the NFL Network took place two weeks ago. The topic of the meeting?

“League of Denial.”

Naturally, ESPN denies any link between NFL pressure and its decision to withdraw from co-branding “League of Denial.” However, there is no denying that NFL-related programming drives ESPN’s profits.

Obviously, where there is smoke, there is fire.

Isn’t there?

But based on my own experience with the fine folks at Frontline, I wonder if there really is something to the “editorial control” issue.

Back in early April 2011, I received an email from Frontline offering an advance copy of “Football High,” which was scheduled for airing that month, and would document “an investigation into the amped-up culture of high school football and the estimated 60,000 concussions suffered each year by high school football players.”

I accepted the offer and in my column leading up to the broadcast, I recommended that high school administrators and elected officials watch the program. It well-illustrated, I thought, how quickly an on-field medical situation will get out of hand if an athletic trainer is not present.

My review otherwise was mixed because the broadcast misrepresented football injury rates and portrayed high school football coaches as uncaring brutes. A very few are but most are not.

The following week, I chronicled my efforts to get Frontline producers to change their injury rate claims.

At the time I wrote, “in the wake of last week's broadcast, I confirmed a number of facts that belie the program's underlying premise: that football has become more dangerous over the last 20 years ... my reading of published data had indicated a drop in that rate over the last two decades. ... I contacted the producers to urge a correction.

“However, they made it clear that (an interviewee) said precisely what they had wanted. The producers' representative wrote, ‘On overall injury statistics, (we) relied on several studies in (our) reporting, including the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study.'

“I (contacted) the lead author of that ongoing study, Dawn Comstock, Ph.D., (and) received an email from her a week ago.

“‘The Frontline folks scheduled and then missed multiple calls with me over the past several months,’ she wrote. ‘All I know is they didn't get any data directly from me and I didn't fact check anything for them.’

“In fairness,” I concluded, “Frontline should be up front about that and set the record straight.”

Instead, a Frontline representative emailed me and Times management to complain about my column.

John Doherty is a certified athletic trainer and licensed physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.

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