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?
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.
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. ”
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.
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?”