Football’s Taboo TV Topic

Television networks are walking a tightrope when reporting on head injuries. As awareness grows, however, the NFL's broadcast partners know it's a topic that cannot be ignored. But are audiences developing concussion fatigue?

By
Richard Deitsch
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The topics of head injuries and overall player safety have begun to be addressed during on-air discussions between former players, coaches and other analysts. (Tom Gannam/AP)
The topics of head injuries and overall player safety have begun to be addressed during on-air discussions between former players, coaches and other analysts. (Tom Gannam/AP)

Visiting the Manhattan apartment of Mike Weisman, it’s impossible to miss the parade of Emmy Awards from a long and distinguished career in sports broadcasting. The nearly two-dozen statuettes stand guard on a shelf in a spacious living room, lording over the place like Swiss guards protecting a European court.  

Weisman joined NBC Sports in 1972 and was appointed executive producer of the sports division 10 years later, a position he held until 1989. After various other television jobs, he returned to NBC Sports for two years in 2007 to serve as the executive in charge of production for the “Football Night in America” studio show. How did he and his colleagues navigate between being a good television partner and reporting on the seamier side of professional sports? “There’s always a very thin line we walked between offending our partners, hurting the product in any way, and yet recognizing we had responsibility to tell the news or the truth as best we knew it,” says Weisman. 


Can football change? Will the sport become safer? How are concussions impacting the game’s future?

Introducing an in-depth series where we tackle those questions, starting at high schools and continuing into college and the NFL. Read the entire series.

It is the same line networks broadcasting the NFL today must traverse when it comes to reporting on concussions and head injuries. The good news is NFL broadcasters are much more willing to discuss and report on the issue now than they were during Weisman’s salad days. “We talked about the Jack Tatums, the Steel Curtains, how players could knock you unconscious and ring your bell, and we reported it with admiration,” Weisman says. “It was like the ESPN “Jacked Up” thing. We glorified it, and we glorified it because we were also unaware of the dangers of concussions.”

All football-airing networks today report on player safety, especially when injuries result in a player missing games, or a helmet-to-helmet hit becomes a point of controversy among fans. What does not exist, however, is substantive dialogue on concussions or brain trauma during game coverage, the sacrosanct product for the league. Broadcasters will tell you that the three-hour window makes it difficult to address the topic with any kind of depth.

“I know three hours for a broadcast seems like a long time, but I really think the topic is so deep that it would take 10 minutes of a broadcast while a football game is going on to try and give that topic any depth whatsoever,” says NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth. “It is something I really care about. I have kids who play the game, and I’ve done a lot of studying and discussing the issue with a lot of people. But I think in my case, the [Showtime] ‘Inside The NFL‘ show is a better format for discussion.”

But what is the impact of not discussing the issue when the most eyeballs are on the product? Steve Fainaru, the Pulitzer Prize-winning ESPN investigative reporter who along with his brother and fellow ESPN investigative reporter, Mark Fainaru-Wada, co-authored “League Of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth,” counters that there is something of a whitewashing going on.   

“I watch the NFL every week, and it’s pretty rare that it comes up, except to point out what a great job the NFL is doing to make the game safer,” says Fainaru. “It’s more like an infomercial. I’m not sure this is always the forum for it, but sometimes it feels like the elephant in the room. It’s obviously an issue—the whole country is talking about it, the president of the United States has even addressed it, and yet for the many hours of coverage, you wouldn’t get that this is a big deal or even very important. This is true of ESPN, too, of course. There hasn’t exactly been a clamor from people on the NFL shows to address the issues raised in League of Denial. ”

Steve Fainaru's reporting played a central role in the recent 'League Of Denial' documentary. (Frederick Brown/Getty Images)
Steve Fainaru’s reporting played a central role in the recent ‘League Of Denial’ documentary. (Frederick Brown/Getty Images)

The Fainarus—and their reporting on this topic—were a major part of this month’s PBS Frontline documentary also titled “League of Denial.” (Fainaru said the book and the documentary grew out of a concussion piece on former Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill that Fainaru-Wada did for ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”) What made the documentary such a topic of concern for NFL officials was it offered a clear and cogent narrative on concussions and brain trauma for the average NFL fan. It also carried the imprimatur of PBS Frontline, television’s journalism’s 800-pound gorilla. In August, The New York Times reported the league put pressure on ESPN to end a 15-month collaboration with Frontline that had already produced nine separate reports on the concussion crisis. The NFL denied the charge

 “OTL and the ESPN investigative unit have been attacking the issue more aggressively than any other media entity in the country—that was one of the reasons ESPN got involved in the Frontline partnership in the first place,” says Fainaru. “It’s somewhat ironic, given what happened. But the commitment is still huge. There’s no way anyone in television is committing more resources to the concussion issue right now. Not really trying to defend the network for pulling out of the Frontline partnership, just pointing out the ironies.”

While networks that air the NFL are eager to trumpet their reporting successes and editorial independence, most only go so far in their reporting on what is clearly a third rail topic for the league. That is what made ESPN’s collaboration with Frontline unique, and viewers should put ESPN in a separate category given they are far and away the on-air reporting leader on concussions among the football-airing networks, mostly thanks to the staff at Outside The Lines.

“All the governing leagues and bodies—MLB, NBA, the Olympics, the NCAA, the NFL—they are all looking to promote their product, and the networks are partners, willing or unwilling,” Weisman said. “They have to put the best face on it—glorify the athletes and make them look good. The difference is we are much more cognizant of the NFL influence because they are better at what they do than the other bodies. We tend to look at the NFL as being on the grassy knoll or domineering, but it is because they are so organized. They see everything. They are really aware of their product and the public perception of their product.”

“I can only speak for ESPN, because that’s where I work,” Fainaru says. “It’s a really complicated issue. I mean, ESPN has a $15 billion investment in the league. I think the more I get into this, the more I appreciate the delicate balancing act that some people at the network are having to execute. But in the end the work speaks for itself. It’s hard to see how anyone could watch or read ‘League of Denial’ and not conclude that this was in many ways a product of ESPN, in the same way that [Monday Night Football] is a product of ESPN. The tension is real, though, and I think that leads to maybe not reticence but a lot of internal deliberation that probably doesn’t exist in other places.”

Interviews with broadcasters and executives last week produced unanimity on the question of whether the NFL had ever directly asked them not to report or discuss the issue of brain trauma or concussions on the air. “Absolutely not, and if the NFL came to me and asked me to back off in some way on an issue like that, I would run straight to the newspapers and tell the world,” Collinsworth says. “That is not what they are supposed to do, and what I am supposed to do is tell the truth as I see it and not care what the consequences are. NBC has been fantastic over the years at backing me at that.” (Fox Sports declined questions from the MMQB asking to self-evaluate its reporting and discussion on brain trauma and concussions).

CBS Sports executive producer Harold Bryant said NFL executives have never asked him or his colleagues to pull back on the topic. He cited a feature on player safety CBS did as part of last year’s Super Bowl pregame show, the sport’s biggest audience of the year. “They let us do what we feel is proper journalism,” Bryant said. “They have never put restrictions on us.”

On this note, longtime NFL producer and reporter Andrea Kremer is part of a broadcast unit for the league-owned NFL Network charged with reporting on player safety. She said she has never been asked by the network or the league to lessen existing reporting on player safety.

“When Mark Quenzel [senior vice president of production and programming for NFL Network] initially talked with me about this job, he told me he’d have my back if my reporting made the league a bit queasy, as long as my stories were fully balanced, fair and represented all viewpoints,” said Kremer, who has covered the NFL for ESPN, NBC and HBO Sports. “I was at the league office recently shooting a story on ‘How a Hit Becomes a Fine’ and happened to have discussed with a high-ranking league official current events that could be construed as not fully positive for the league and he reiterated: Just cover all sides. That’s the best I can ask for, I think.”

Kremer said one positive result of her reporting and others is the trickle-down effect of concussion awareness, especially at the lowest and youngest levels of the game. “But I think the audience is developing concussion fatigue,” she says. “And I see no evidence that the reporting on concussions and traumatic brain injuries [TBI] has had any effect on the popularity of the NFL, whether in stadium or on television.”

That is true. While Frontline’s documentary drew a big audience—2.5 million viewers—in relation to its usual viewership, it was still 26 million viewers fewer than the NFL’s most-watched game (Packers-Niners on Sept. 8) this season.

I think that the audience is developing concussion fatigue. And I see no evidence that the reporting on concussions has had any effect on the popularity of the NFL. —Andrea Kremer

So what happens next? Any serious on-air reporting heading forward will have to originate from networks that see such reporting in the public interest and are willing to occasionally butt heads with the league on it. ESPN, ironically given its breakup with Frontline, remains the best bet for viewers because it’s the lone place in sports television that employs an entire department of investigative reporters. How would Fainaru improve the reporting on concussions by the NFL’s television partners?

“I think one could logically conclude the networks, on some level, are trying to protect the league’s interests, and of course their own,” Fainaru said. “But to me they’re not mutually exclusive. One thing that’s really become clear to me is that people who love football are really looking for good information to help them sort out what this means—especially as it relates to their own lives. The networks—and the NFL—could do a major public service by addressing the issue head on (sorry) and featuring people on different sides of the issue. For example, Bob Cantu, who advises the NFL, wants us to abolish tackle football before high school. Kevin Guskiewicz, who also advises the league, disagrees. Why not let them air it out before or during the Sunday night game? Would that be less valuable or interesting than, say, another feature on Colin Kaepernick’s turtle?”

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12 comments
jj55
jj55

I'm in San Diego. The morning after the Frontline special, the online version of the local paper ran a review of the documentary in the sports section. There was exactly one reader response, compared to the usual dozens of reader responses on every other Charger-related article.

This is the sports entertainment business. Concussion are not entertaining. At some point, MRI results, contact penalties and Pretty in Pink promotions are going to turn off the fans, and, in doing do, the money machine. Not an indictment of the media or the NFL, just an observation.

LeeJJ
LeeJJ

It is certainly not a taboo topic at MMQB as four of the eleven subjects on the main page at this moment are on the topic. Important topic, yes. Not sure about the saturation of coverage.

DaveG
DaveG

One of the problems for the NFL - and it will take decades to get there - is whether football as we know it will be permitted in high schools.  Sooner, rather than later a school district will get sued for past head injuries.  Then the insurance coverage will either be too expensive or not available and that district will just end football.  What then?

Ryan16
Ryan16

its a dangerous game and the players are all well compensated for the risk. . I would take 20 years off my life to be a nfl player and make 60 million doing it. instead im just a drone on an manufacturing line doing something i hate every single day.

jharvi
jharvi

Another taboo topic regarding football on TV that I only see being mentioned anywhere in the mainstream media is on ESPN.com's "Tuesday Morning Quarterback" and that's big-time college football programs' poor graduation rate of their student-athletes, especially those of color. I agree wholeheartedly with TMQG author Gregg Easterbrook that those rates should be incorporated into national ranking computations and that if a player leaves college for the NFL before graduating, then he should not be able to list said university as his alma mater, but only the highest level of completed education.

Donna7
Donna7

I understand football is a violent game, and I have still chosen to watch it and enjoy it. It's not the violence and the head trauma that makes me reconsider watching it. 

It's the league's attempts at covering up what they knew and deliberating misleading players and consumers alike that I'm having trouble with. After watching League of Denial, I decided to read the book.

Several things: it confirmed for me that the NFL is a despicable organization which only cares about profit, treats its players like disposable, interchangeable cogs in a money-making machine, and which had plenty of opportunity to protect those players for decades and chose instead to hide, deny, and lie about what it knew about head injuries, and indeed tried its hardest to discredit anyone who tried to tell the truth. It deliberately exposed players to harm and then callously discarded them when they were no longer useful.

The parts of the book dealing with Mike Webster were particularly disturbing. I've always thought the Steelers were a great organization, but they deserted him when he was lost and suffering. I'm pretty disillusioned, to tell you the truth.

The argument that any idiot should know hitting your head is bad for you and that the players know what they're getting into and are paid a lot of money for it just shows a lack of knowledge of what goes on. When your job depends on believing what your bosses tell you, you can't blame the players. And as recently as Alex Smith, it's clear that players can lose their jobs to a concussion, in spite of arguments to the contrary.

During a Steelers pre-game show this season, Tom Jackson et. al. were discussing how the new rules were causing players to aim for the legs in order to avoid head shots. They all agreed knee injuries can end a career but concussions are no big deal because they're temporary and you can get back in the game next week. They all said they'd rather have a head injury than a knee injury. I found that both startling and disturbing.

I've been a fan since 1969, but the idea that these men are suffering for my entertainment and the league's profit, and that until recently no one has cared, is pretty distasteful.

USLaw_com
USLaw_com

The NFL and ESPN are still going out of their way to glorify violent head tackles.  See this television commercial which aired during this week's Monday Night Football broadcast which highlights a three-way head collision:

http://youtu.be/07wxXtk6jfI

thomasoverley
thomasoverley

You write do we the consumer have "concussion fatigue" and then go on to write what your 5th story about it in the last two days:?

LeeJJ
LeeJJ

Scratch that...it's five of the eleven articles. 

LouisMusto
LouisMusto

@Ryan16 You do realize that most NFL players don't make $60 million, right? And the majority of NFL players are lucky to last past two-three seasons in the league? Not to mention those who play in high school and college that never make it into the NFL, who never make that kind of money. Don't undervalue good health and overvalue money. Money isn't everything and I think there are a large sum of former players that would tell you that it certainly didn't bring them happiness.

richarddeitsch
richarddeitsch moderator

@thomasoverley That's Andrea Kremer's take, and no doubt some agree. But this will be a week-long series, and it's important topic.

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