"League of Denial," a two-hour documentary which is set to premiere in October, was done as a collaboration between ESPN's news magazine program "Outside the Lines" and "Frontline." It includes interviews with former NFL players, and the league is not portrayed in a flattering light for how it has handled the issue of head injuries over the years.
In describing the show earlier this month to reporters, "Frontline" deputy executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath said it would look closely at "what did the NFL know, and when did they know it when it comes to the connection between football and the potential long-term brain damage in players."
In a statement about ESPN's decision, Aronson-Rath and executive producer David Fanning said, "We don't normally comment on investigative projects in progress, but we regret ESPN's decision to end a collaboration that has spanned the last 15 months and is based on the work of ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, as well as 'Frontline's' own original journalism."
ESPN said that because it did not produce or have editorial control over "League of Denial" it would be inappropriate to be associated with it.
"The use of ESPN's marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control," the company said.
Aronson-Rath and Fanning said that although "League of Denial" had not been seen by ESPN, that was scheduled to happen and the cable network's input would have been welcome and taken into consideration during the editing process.
"We’ve been in synch on the goals of our reporting: to present the deepest accounting so far of the league’s handling of questions around the long-term impact of
Given that ESPN is home to the NFL's "Monday Night Football" franchise and this year will pay $1.1 billion for that package, there may be a perception that it pulled its logo and credit out of fear of angering its most important business partner.
During a briefing about "League of Denial" at the semi-annual Television Critics Assn. press tour here, ESPN senior coordination producer Dwayne Bray said the cable network's relationship with the NFL and other sports leagues doesn't factor into its journalism.
"ESPN is the gold standard for sports journalism, from covering the games to investigative journalism," Bray said, adding that the company "made a conscious decision when we were presented with this opportunity to literally get in bed with 'Frontline.'"
ESPN insiders insist this was simply a branding issue and had nothing to do with the content of "League of Denial." A senior executive there acknowledged that ESPN should have focused on the editorial control aspects of the arrangement with "Frontline" from the beginning.
The company also noted that it has done plenty of stories on the concussion issue across its various television, print and digital platforms.
AN NFL spokesman declined to comment on "League of Denial" or ESPN's decision. The NFL also declined to participate in the "Frontline" episode.
The NFL is very protective of its brand. Many years ago, when ESPN aired a dramatic series about a rogue football team called "Playmakers," the league's top brass and some team owners were very critical of the series, which was canceled after just one season despite strong ratings.
Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.