ESPN Ombudsman: Trailer For ‘Frontline’ Doc A Catalyst For Channel Dropping Out

By Alex Weprin 

The bombshell news late last week that ESPN would be pulling out of a PBS “Frontline” documentary on concussions in the NFL continues. The latest comes from ESPN’s ombudsman, Robert Lipsyte, as well as Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch, who each shed new light on the situation.

Lipsyte talks to ESPN president John Skipper, who says it was a trailer for the doc that was the catalyst for the decision to drop out of the project (watch the trailer below).

He hadn’t seen the trailer or approved its content, which included the ESPN logo and a collaboration credit. He thought it was “odd for me not to get a heads up,” and said it made him “quite unhappy” to discover that ESPN had no editorial control over the trailer.

Upon screening it, Skipper said he found the trailer to be “sensational.” He particularly objected to the tagline — “Get ready to change the way you see the game” — and to the final sound bite in the piece, from neuropathologist Ann McKee. Referring to brain injuries, she says, “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”

Skipper said he found that comment to be “over the top.”

Lipsyte also reports that Skipper talked to Disney CEO Bob Iger and lawyers at both companies before pulling out of the project.

In SI, Deitsch looks at what comes next for the book League of Denial, which the “Frontline” doc is based on, and which was written by two brothers… who are ESPN investigative reporters.

The next pressure point comes the second week of October when the Fainaru book is published. Those inside ESPN who care about journalism are watching to see how aggressive the company will promote the book and documentary. Will the Fainaru Brothers get a couple of quick OTL segments on ESPN2 and exit stage right, or will the company open up the multi-platforms as they did when Tim Tebow took off his shirt at practice last year or Johnny Manziel signed some autographs? Will they appear on multiple SportsCenters? Will Around The Horn’s journalists get points deducted for talking about the book? The irony is no matter how ESPN plays it, the company’s resources are all over the film and the Fainaru’s book.

“We anticipate having them on our platforms to discuss the book,” an ESPN spokesperson told Sunday.

Watch “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” preview on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.