ESPN responds to Poynter article concerning its coverage of NFL and concussions

November 16, 2017

Poynter received this memo Thursday from Chris Buckle, who supervises investigative journalism at ESPN. In it, he takes issue with a quote from an interview Jim Warren, Poynter’s media writer, did with Rebecca Carpenter.

She’s a filmmaker who has a new documentary about concussions in the NFL. She uses her father, former Green Bay player Lew Carpenter, as the focus of her movie.

In the interview, Warren allowed Carpenter’s assertions about ESPN to go unchecked, leaving readers with the impression that ESPN had not been aggressive in covering the issue because of its business relationship with the NFL.

Because we value clarity, and wish to rectify this lapse, we are publishing Buckle’s documentation of his network’s coverage on the issue. We also published this story, in which Carpenter sets the record straight.

Here is an edited version of his memo:

I have been fortunate to have been a manager and editor at some of the nation’s largest media organizations (Dallas Morning News, USA Today) and some of the smallest (Portsmouth Times, Bridgewater Courier-News) and can honestly state I have run into less editorial interference at ESPN in getting out investigative journalism than at any of my prior stops. Please consider that statement for a moment, because it’s quite a strong, if for no other reason than to understand that ESPN is or has been business partners with virtually every sporting entity out there. We have published or aired hundreds of investigative or critical stories involving current business partners, from the largest – the NFL, MLB and NBA – to the some of the smallest – CrossFit and the AAU, for example.

Because it is clear neither Ms. Carpenter nor Mr. Warren has read any ESPN coverage of NFL issues, please indulge a small sampling of ledes and nutgraphs from recent ESPN stories about brain trauma and the NFL alone:

  •  “For nearly two decades, the NFL ran a series of scientific experiments. The league formed its own research arm and published 16 papers about football and head injuries. The central conclusion — that NFL players don't get brain damage — led to public criticism, Congressional hearings and, in 2009, the abandonment of the project. But the NFL hasn't abandoned the science of concussions. Over the past three and a half years, the league has transformed itself into one of the largest funders of brain research in the United States, allowing it to maintain a powerful role in science that could affect millions of people and, not incidentally, the bottom line of America's richest and most popular sport.

    "How the NFL wields that power is revealed in funding data compiled by Outside the Lines, interviews with scientific experts inside and outside the federal government and documents that have not been previously disclosed.” NFL donations to brain research benefit league-linked doctors, raise worries about influence on science

  • August 2017: “Since announcing a $100 million commitment to concussion research last year, the NFL has funded just one study examining chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the brain disease that has shaken pro football. But that study isn't focused on football players. It's focused on jockeys.” NFL retakes control of brain research
     
  • July 2017: Nearly five years ago, the NFL donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for brain research, an initiative that commissioner Roger Goodell touted as a demonstration of the league's commitment to fund independent science exploring the link between football and brain disease. But the marriage between the NFL and the government agency appears headed for a divorce. NIH officials decided months ago to let the agreement expire in August with more than half of the money unused, following a bitter dispute in 2015 in which the NFL backed out of a major study that had been awarded to a researcher who had been critical of the league, Outside the Lines has learned." NFL-NIH research partnership set to end with $16M unspent
     
  • August 2017: “For Lorraine Dixon, Liz Nicholson Sullivan and so many other women, their NFL experiences have been redefined in later years, colored by the transformations of these men and, now, by the legal battles they're waging. It has fallen on them to navigate the NFL concussion case — the $1 billion settlement that stemmed from thousands of players suing the league over claims it hid the dangers of concussions. The settlement was supposed to provide much-needed money to ease their burdens; instead, for many, it has become a legal morass defined by battles with lawyers, predatory lenders and a complicated award process.” ‘Who does this to people?’

And to you show you ESPN has covered these issues, about a business partner’s actions, for years, two additional examples:

  • April 2013: “From that point on, the NFL played a powerful role in determining what happened to Junior Seau's brain — who studied it and where. In the hours, days and weeks after Seau shot himself in the chest with a .357 Magnum revolver — the shocking end to the life of one of the most admired players in history — the league muscled aside independent researchers, ignored a previous commitment to Boston University and directed Seau's brain to the National Institutes of Health — four months before the NFL donated $30 million to that institution for concussion and other research.

    "The NFL's intervention in the fate of Seau's brain — the most prized specimen yet in the race to document the relationship between football and brain damage — was part of an aggressive strategy to dictate who leads the science of concussions. By shunting aside Omalu, whose discovery sparked the concussion crisis; Boston University researchers, the leading experts on football and brain damage; a Nobel laureate; and other suitors, the league directed Seau's brain away from scientists who have driven the national debate about the risks of playing football — the central issue to the NFL's future.” How multiple research groups and the NFL battled over Junior Seau's brain to lead the science of concussions

  • 2006: “Pellman’s committee is up to 13 papers now, and the league continues to disregard what other researchers are finding. 'If the NFL ever had to bring their practices in line with the rest of the literature, they'd have to change everything about the way they operate,' says Head Games author Nowinski. 'They could no longer make heroes of the guys who go back in after getting concussions. It would turn their game on its head.' Meanwhile, players risk serious, lasting head injuries each week. Last year's Wayne Chrebet is this year's Dan Morgan. The NFL has to decide how much longer it can afford to send players back into games after they've been knocked out. How much longer it wants to tell players that multiple concussions pose no threat to their future mental health. And how much longer it wants to keep relying on Elliot Pellman's research to make its calls. Dr. Yes

As noted, this is a small sampling of our work in this subject matter. I would be happy to provide a full listing if you’d like. My colleagues and I have published and aired dozens of similar NFL stories over the past decade, and we are proud of them. Even the fiercest of ESPN critics regularly acknowledge our work in this area. Our coverage has won the highest of honors, too: Emmys, a duPont, a Peabody Award and many others.