Filmmaker clarifies critique of ESPN’s coverage of NFL concussions

November 16, 2017

Here’s an update from my Wednesday column.

The filmmaker behind a powerful new documentary on pro football brain injuries on Thursday conceded that she was wrong in deriding ESPN coverage of the subject during our  interview.

Rebecca Carpenter, whose "Requiem for a Running Back" is having a limited run in theaters, was responding to a letter from ESPN journalists who said her criticism did not adequately acknowledge the work that they and the network had done on the issue of concussions in the NFL.

She said that reporters at ESPN "have contributed vital reporting to this important topic and I regret that my statements suggested otherwise. It was certainly not my intention to disparage any individual reporter or the beautifully executed and investigated documentary, 'League of Denial.'"

"Collectively, these investigative reporters have made a vital contribution to my community’s understanding of this disease, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude," she said.

Carpenter said that in discussing ESPN originally, she was alluding to "a number of articles in the New York Times (including an August 2013 New York Times piece, 'NFL Pressure Said to Lead ESPN to Quit Film Project') which described ESPN’s response to pressure from the league to distance itself from 'League of Denial,'" a book and documentary based on work by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.

"Given my personal familial experience, and my conversations with other families and researchers, I found this notion chilling. I’m truly sorry if I misunderstood the actual dynamics of this and fully acknowledge that ESPN has, in fact, covered 'League of Denial' and reported extensively about CTE."

At issue is a Poynter interview with Carpenter that touched upon media coverage of the NFL and football-related injuries, a subject not mentioned in the documentary, which ended a limited New York theatrical run on Thursday.

In our interview, Carpenter shared her perceptions that reporters at ESPN and elsewhere are cowed by the NFL. In retrospect, Carpenter admitted her views were limited.

Chris Buckle, who supervises investigative journalism at ESPN, noted in a detailed memo to Poynter Thursday that the network is a business partner of the league but asserted "pretty much everything else said by her … is outright false."

Poynter concurs with much of that assessment. And so do I.

In my reporting, I did not ask for a response from ESPN. The reporting lapse allowed Carpenter’s quotes to go unchecked. Poynter also acknowledges the concerns of ESPN’s journalists and is setting the record straight in this story as well as the original. We are also publishing an extensive excerpt from the memo we received Thursday from Buckle.

Carpenter's father, Lew, was a star running back of the 1950s and 1960s and his post-death diagnosis of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is the central reality of the film. Both Buckle and reporters Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru noted the ESPN reporting history on the topic. Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru are co-authors of the 2013 book "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth," whose reporting "generated dozens of stories that ESPN published across a variety of platforms, exposing the work to millions of people," Fainaru-Wada noted in an email to Carpenter.

Buckle cited a variety of stories in a memo to Poynter. They include an April 2013 piece, "How multiple research groups and the NFL battled over Junior Seau's brain to lead the science of concussions; a February 2016 piece, NFL donations to brain research benefit league-linked doctors, raise worries about influence on science; a July 2017 effort, "NFL retakes control of brain research; and July's  "Outside the Lines" effort, NFL-NIH research partnership set to end with $16M unspent.

As for reporters being scared of the league, Fainaru-Wada wrote Carpenter, "I would love to know more about these reporters and the CTE-related stories they struggled to get approved; as someone at our place in the thick of writing about these issues, I have NEVER experienced anything suggesting we not do these stories because of fears about the NFL. And I don’t know a single individual in our very large investigative unit who is fearful of 'pissing off the league.'"

ESPN addressed the matter Thursday on "Outside the Lines," criticizing Poynter and noting that it interviewed Carpenter last week on the topic of concussions.

In her response Thursday, Carpenter said "I hear constantly from people on the frontline of battling and researching CTE that there is a strong resistance to this meticulously researched and well-documented degenerative neurocognitive disease."

"I am frustrated and chagrined about the reports I get from the medical community and others who know this unique disease is caused by repeat blunt force trauma to the head. I am also very familiar with the fears they express about reprisal."

“That is the 'we' I was referring to. But it is my fervent hope that ESPN and others in the media continue to press this issue so we can all work together to save lives. The ESPN investigative team and I are on the same side of this issue."