An ESPN microphone before the NFL game between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals on September 25, 2023, in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Ian Johnson / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ESPN’s dogged but underappreciated reporters keep getting laid off—and now a main target of their investigations may become the new boss.
This could be the death blow to sports journalism at ESPN. The NFL is in negotiations to buy a stake in the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports.” On a financial level, the plan makes sense: Disney, which owns ESPN, would join forces with the NFL, and the NFL would take a piece of an entity that is not only the king of sports coverage in the United States but has often been a thorn in its side.
Such a move feels predestined partly because ESPN has increasingly become an “all NFL, all the time” network. Since Disney bought the rights to broadcast games on ESPN, the network has hired more and more ex-players as talking heads and laid off or forced out many of its award-winning journalists.
Some of these ex-players—think Ryan Clark or Dan Orlovsky—provide incisive analysis. Others, like Pat McAfee, might as well be sentient slabs of ham. As ESPN’s carnival-barking stars like McAfee and Stephen A. Smith get paid eight figures a year, there have been years of layoffs, especially of its reporters. When I asked one former ESPN journalist what could happen to the news department if the NFL bought a portion of the network, they quipped, “What news department?”
The NFL’s owners long ago breached ESPN’s much-vaunted “wall” between its entertainment and journalism sides. Yet it also must be acknowledged that a dwindling number of intrepid reporters have stayed steadfast through the layoffs and despite the disrespect shown to their work. Over the last 15 years, reporters at ESPN have done many of the most important exposés of the NFL. People like Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham have reported on how the NFL has responded to issues ranging from domestic violence to last year’s near on-field death of Buffalo Bill Damar Hamlin. These journalists also helped expose the sexism and racism of the odious and now jettisoned Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder, and they recently published an inside look into the “divorce” of Bill Belichick and Patriots owner Bob Kraft. These stories were often buried on the website and usually ignored on both the network’s flagship show SportsCenter as well as its hours of shout-festy NFL-centric programming. In addition, back in 2019, ESPN canceled its award-winning investigative program Outside the Lines as a daily show and then in early 2023 canceled it as a weekly. OTL could be counted upon to shine light when the league wanted to do business in shadows.
Good journalism was already in danger at ESPN, but it is one thing to hide important reporting at the bottom of a website, and it is another thing to spike any efforts to investigate the NFL at all. If the NFL has decision-making power at ESPN, that is probably an inevitability. We have seen this with the NFL Network, which hired stellar reporters only, according to journalist and former employee Jim Trotter, to limit the extent to which they can ply their craft. I reached out to Trotter, currently a national columnist at The Athletic, about his time at the NFL Network and he told me:
I reached out to Trotter, currently a national columnist at The Athletic, about his time at the NFL Network and he told me: “Van Natta [at ESPN] was allowed to write the story about what really went down when the Damar Hamlin game was canceled. I was investigating the same story at the same time. Brian McCarthy, one of the league’s chief PR people, wanted me to drop the story and threatened to call my boss if I did not drop it. I told him I was OK with him calling my boss. Not even 10 minutes later I received a text from Todd Sperry, the head of the newsroom, telling me to ‘stand down.’ I texted back and said, ‘I thought our job as journalists was to pursue the truth. Has that changed?’ He never responded to me.”
Let’s remember the context of the Hamlin story. His heart stopped on the field twice in a late season game at Cincinnati. After he was driven off the field in an ambulance, the league—according to all credible reporting—said that the show needed to go on, even though the players and the Cincinnati crowd had just watched a player nearly die on the field. It took the union, the players, and both head coaches to band together and tell the league that the game would not continue. Say what you will about the McAfee/Stephen A. incarnation of ESPN, but when an NFL player had a cardiac arrest in front of millions of viewers, the network investigated it while the NFL’s official media body did not. If the NFL Network reveals the future of ESPN, you might as well look at it like a company town: a subsidiary of the most powerful cultural entity in the United States.
The 31 NFL owners—not 32, because Green Bay is community-owned—have, as retired Outside the Lines host Bob Ley told me, a power and wealth that usually results in getting what they want. “There are fewer team owners than senators, and they are more powerful than the College of Cardinals,” he remarked. “They have proven that they are the last and only surviving part of our culture that will bring a mass audience. And that makes it invaluable.” Or as the great Albert Brooks’s character Dr. Cyril Wecht mused in the movie Concussion, “The NFL owns a day of the week. The same day the church used to own. Now it’s theirs.” This is hardly hyperbole: Last year, 93 of the top 100 most-watched television programs were NFL games.
In the face of such consolidated power, the need for robust and independent media to track the NFL’s quest for cultural domination has never been more important. Ask the people of Las Vegas who paid hundreds of millions of dollars to steal away the Oakland Raiders, build a new mega-stadium, and host this year’s Super Bowl. Meanwhile, public services in Las Vegas, from schools to hospitals, have been starved. This requires not just local but also national investigative reporting. If past is prologue, the NFL ownership class and its meat puppet Roger Goodell will not abide independent journalism under their roof. Once you are “behind the shield,” the only truth that gets out is the truth the NFL’s owners allow you to print.
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