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PBS Ombudsman

Necessary Roughness: Frontline Sacks NFL

Frontline, PBS's flagship investigative series, gave the National Football League a pretty good pop Tuesday night in a widely-anticipated and widely-publicized two-hour special, "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis."

It started, as do all Frontline programs, with that unmistakable theme music and that unseen but also unmistakable voice of narrator Will Lyman: "Tonight on Frontline, the epic story of football's concussion crisis . . . a major investigation of what the NFL knew and when it knew it . . . a decades-long battle between scientists, players and the nation's most powerful sports league."

By the time it was over, a powerful and well-reported program had laid out a long and sad history about the NFL's "resistance to acknowledging the growing evidence of the link between concussions and progressive degenerative brain disease," as the New York Times put it today.

The publicity and anticipation of this hard-nosed inquiry into whether the NFL has covered up the risks of life-changing and life-threatening brain damage to football players actually started early in August when Frontline released a foreboding, two-minute trailer that included film clips of repetitive, bell-ringing tackles. That led to ESPN, the huge TV sports network that has a contract with the NFL reportedly worth almost $2 billion a year, pulling out of what had already been a15-month collaboration with Frontline as a producing partner on the program. It was also reported that this pull-out resulted from pressure by the NFL, which the League and ESPN deny.

I wrote briefly about this at the time. One of the things I said was: "This is actually a very big story because of what it might end up revealing about ESPN, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., and its relationship to sports journalism — whether it is as hard-hitting as some of the sports it covers — and to its important business relationship with the NFL and other major leagues."

As it turns out, now that the program has aired, it has revealed lots of things — about ESPN, the NFL, the correlation between repetitive trauma of football hits and brain disease, and Frontline.

Will It Matter?

Yet it also left me wondering whether the impact of such a program, no matter how powerful and well done, will simply get blown away by Sunday, or Monday night, when the vastly more powerful American devotion to football is filling stadiums, screens and bank accounts?

And it also left me wondering if, despite dedicated efforts by some very committed and independent medical specialists and some belated but new undertakings by the NFL, there is any realistic path to truly minimize such injuries. I say this given the huge role of football in American life, the NFL's history on this issue and strategy in dealing with it, the tens of billions of dollars at stake every year, football's grip on those who choose to play despite the risks, and the need for more unimpeachable medical voices and institutions to weigh in.

Not Much Mail, But Some Thoughts

I received surprisingly little mail about the program, so there doesn't appear to be much controversy about it and maybe this means most people liked it. The few emails and calls I did get were very positive.

Here are a couple: Bill Recto from Sacramento, Calif, said: "I liked this episode. It's Frontline at its best. It's crazy that the NFL has pressured the doctors who investigated NFL's star's brains to rig the results to fit the agenda of NFL . . . I want to see the (non-NFL funded) doctors/neurologists who did investigate the brain damage get the Nobel Medicine Prize in 2014. This is after showing some evidence that hits in college football and high school can subsequently lead to mental illness in the latter years of a player's life."

And Neil Lewis from Washington, D.C., offered a compliment while raising a good point about another episode that might have been included in the program: "The recent Frontline on the NFL's response to the concussion problem was exhilarating journalism — great storytelling with real consequences. It was also clear in its description as to who had behaved well and who hadn't. I was puzzled, however, as to why there was no mention of the recent New Orleans Saints 'headhunting' bounty scandal. It seemed a natural element in the story."

Frontline's website and PBS's Facebook page attracted lots of comments, also largely laudatory, and the program was widely and favorably reviewed in lots of places, from Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Times, the New York Daily News and NOLA.com to USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, HitFix and Time.

I am not going to add to this collection other than to say that I thought Frontline, once again, did an excellent job and continues as the most important high-quality and consistently challenging investigative/documentary series on American television.

But, even though I got just a handful of emails, I thought there were a number of things about the program that were interesting to an ombudsman and worth mentioning.

  • The widespread news coverage in August about ESPN pulling its brand and logo from the program probably drove many fans of that network to PBS to see the actual film. Early ratings projections, according to Frontline's home station, WGBH in Boston, indicate that some 2.2 million or more people watched "League of Denial" on televisions. That would be 700,000 or more beyond the average 1.5 million Frontline viewers during the last broadcast season, and would place it at or near the top of Frontline's programs of recent years. Final viewing numbers will take a few more weeks, officials said.

  • The program also seems to be a big hit online as well. PBS officials say that there were 88,000 streams (across all platforms) of "League" in the first day after broadcast, four times a typical Frontline program and double what another very popular, pre-election program, "The Choice," achieved last year.

  • Although ESPN had ended its official collaboration, the contribution to hard-hitting sports journalism by ESPN investigative reporters was the central and indispensable element to this program and its credibility. As is well known by now, the program is based on the work of the ESPN team of brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada and their just-released book, "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth."

  • I would also give the best-supporting journalist award to ESPN reporter Peter Keating who, at key moments throughout the broadcast, repeatedly sheds light on what he depicts as an NFL strategy of delay. Addressing the findings of NFL concussion committee meetings over the years, Keating says: "The closer you look, the less this holds up. But it did establish, you know, this kind of impressive-looking set of findings which pushed off the day of reckoning for the league. That's really what is happening here, right? During this whole run of research that's being published, the day of reckoning, where the league has to answer to somebody about what it's doing about concussions, just keeps getting pushed off and pushed off and pushed off."

  • The NFL chose not to cooperate with Frontline in allowing its officials to be interviewed for the program. That sounds like a lawyerly decision to me, but I think that is almost always a mistake. It tended to reinforce the notion that the NFL strategy was to do what it can to appear helpful, and actually be helpful where it can, but not to chance ceding any definitive acknowledgements or options.

  • Indeed, as has been widely reported, as the current season was about to begin, the NFL reached a $765 million settlement with some 4,500 retired players who "claimed the NFL had fraudulently concealed the danger to their brains," as the Frontline narrator put it. But as Fainaru-Wada says on camera, "There's no admission whatsoever of guilt by the league . . . there's no acknowledgement of any causation between football and the possibility of long-term brain damage."

  • I came away from this program feeling that it was the best one-sided, yet fair, program I had seen in quite a while. It was one-sided in the sense that it was clear from the outset, and from the book, where this program was going. And there was significant medical evidence presented backing up the causation issue. Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University's Center for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), said on camera that she had now examined the brains of 46 deceased former NFL players and had found CTE in 45 cases.

  • On the other hand, the program lays out the medical uncertainty as well, interviewing other doctors who feel there is some polarization and advocacy among some who are most active in suggesting this link, and that there are still other issues — genetics, steroid or drug use, trauma from other sources, etc. — that need to be looked at.

So, are you ready for some football?

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