The NFL said Friday it did not pressure ESPN to pull its logo and credit from "Frontline's" upcoming documentary about the controversial subject of sports and brain injury, "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis."
"It is not true that we pressured ESPN to pull out of the film," NFL Senior Vice President of Communications Greg Aiello told TheWrap. "The lunch was requested several weeks ago by ESPN. We meet with our business partners on a regular basis, and this was not unusual."
Some media have reported that the NFL pressured the network to distance itself from the documentary at a lunch earlier this week.
The sports network pulled its branding from the film — based on the upcoming book with the same title by ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru — on Thursday. “You may notice some changes to our 'League of Denial' and 'Concussion Watch' websites,” the documentary producers said in a statement on the Frontline website.
The NFL has known about the book, film and ESPN's involvement for almost a year and has cooperated in several ways, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
The documentary is scheduled to premiere Oct. 8, the same day the book is released.
"League of Denial" was done as a collaborative effort between ESPN's investigative news program, "Outside the Lines," and PBS' "Frontline." It includes interviews about brain injury with former NFL players.
Given the subject matter, the league's handling of the controversial issue is not shown in a flattering light in the film. And given ESPN's contracts with the NFL, some have wondered if this is a best-business move.
“The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL," ESPN said in a statement. "As we have in the past including as recently as Sunday, we will continue to cover the concussion story aggressively through our own reporting.”
"In hindsight, we should have reached this conclusion much sooner," the network's spokesman, Josh Krulewitz, told TheWrap. "That was a mistake on our part."
Said ESPN President John Skipper in a statement: "We have been leaders in reporting on the concussion issue, dating back to the mid-1990s. Most recently, we aired a lengthy, thorough, well-reported segment on Outside the Lines on Sunday, and re-aired it Tuesday. I want to be clear about ESPN’s commitment to journalism and the work of our award-winning enterprise team. We will continue to report this story and will continue to support the work of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru."
Here is the network's explanation for removing all branding:
"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 ESPN said. "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."
This is "a branding issue, not a commentary on the documentaries or the Fainaru brothers book," the network said. "The people at 'Frontline' and the Fainaru brothers are respected journalists."
As for "Frontline," Thursday it 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."
The show continued: "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."