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ESPN has backed out of a partnership with PBS's Frontline on an investigative project into concussions in NFL players, according to a note posted to the "Frontline" website this evening. The note, titled "Frontline: ESPN and 'League of Denial'", explains why the mammoth sports cable network's name suddenly disappeared from the websites for the upcoming film League of Denial and Concussion Watch, a companion project that tracks concussions sustained by NFL players. "We will no longer use their logos and collaboration credit on these sites and on our upcoming film League of Denial," Frontline executives wrote, indicating that the change was at the network's request. 

Frontline's announcement is bound to raise some eyebrows. For one thing, the forthcoming documentary League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, is more or less based on the work of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, two investigative reporters who work for ESPN. The title of their forthcoming book? League of Denial.  

ESPN has previously faced criticism over its coverage of the impact of concussions and head injuries on NFL players. Because the network makes a lot of money from broadcasting NFL games, there is concern of an acute conflict of interest going on between the editorial and business sides of the Connecticut-based company. In fact, the network often cited its collaboration as a rebuttal to that line of questioning: Earlier in August, ESPN senior coordinating producer Dwayne Bray told reporters that "ESPN has been covering this subject for almost two decades,” adding (via ThinkProgress): 

“Our journalism has been very strong on this issue, so strong that we partner with Frontline. Frontline is the gold standard for long-form documentaries…ESPN and other media entities are being educated as well. I think we’ve shown a lot of restraint especially in recent years, in showing the big hits…We don’t show any of that footage willy-nilly. There is a lot of thought and discussion that goes into our highlights.”

Shortly after Frontline made today's announcement, ESPN released a statement (via Deadspin): 

Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the Frontline documentaries, there will be no co-branding involving ESPN on the documentaries or their marketing materials. The use of ESPN's marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control. As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting.

Here's the full note from Frontline:

You may notice some changes to our League of Denial and Concussion Watch websites. From now on, at ESPN’s request, we will no longer use their logos and collaboration credit on these sites and on our upcoming film League of Denial, which investigates the NFL’s response to head injuries among football players.

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.

Over that time, we’ve enjoyed a productive partnership with ESPN’s investigative program,Outside the Lines, jointly publishing and co-branding several ground-breaking articles on our respective websites and on their broadcast. We’ve been in sync 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 concussions. This editorial partnership was similar to our many other collaborations with news organizations over the years.

ESPN’s decision will in no way affect the content, production or October release of Frontline’s League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. The film is grounded in the Fainaru brothers’ forthcoming book, also titled League of Denial, and the authors will continue to participate in the production and be featured in the documentary.

The film is still being edited and has not been seen by ESPN news executives, although we were on schedule to share it with them for their editorial input. The two-hour documentary and accompanying digital reporting will honor Frontline’s rigorous standards of fairness, accuracy, transparency and depth.

David Fanning, Executive Producer
Raney Aronson, Deputy Executive Producer

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