Last week, ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro told The Washington Post that the network had informed the NFL that it would not be showing the playing of the national anthem before games as a courtesy to the league. He said it was part of a larger effort to show the NFL just how much ESPN values their partnership.
In his mailbag column this week, The Athletic‘s Richard Deitsch was asked what that larger effort might entail. Specifically, the email wanted to know if the NFL could demand an end to any investigative reporting done on the league, its teams, or its players. Deitsch didn’t go so far as to say it would put an end to investigative reporting, but Pitaro’s comments do put the network’s reporters in an interesting situation.
I think the journalists who do investigative work would be wise to be concerned. ESPN is undoubtedly going to continue to cover the NFL daily and will break plenty of compelling stories that involve players etc … But will we see deep investigative pieces on the issues that really chafe at the NFL brass (concussions, ownership scandals, the nexus between social justice and the national anthem policy)? That’s the large question because the reality is fellow NFL media rightsholders are not doing those stories on the league. (And if you think the NFL hasn’t punished ESPN for being a reporting pain in the behind, I have a monorail to sell you in North Haverbrook — just look at ESPN’s Monday Night Football schedule prior to this year.)
Deitsch added that the network itself is in a curious spot. It makes sense that ESPN values its relationship with the NFL, but it has to value its reporters too, as that is what makes ESPN’s NFL coverage different from the coverage provided by any of the league’s other TV partners.
The reality is that what is best for ESPN’s business is to avoid covering stories that tick NFL owners off. But I’d argue ESPN’s journalism is also something that separates it from every other sports media entity in partnership with professional leagues.
The outlet that Deitsch worries would be most affected by any editorial mandates from the corporate level is Outside the Lines. The show has already lost its Monday time slot during the NFL season, and with its long time leader Bob Ley taking a 6 month sabbatical, Deitsch worries that OTL will lose some of its strength.
For its part though, ESPN has already told Deitsch that it is still committed to OTL. It is hard though to read Pitaro’s comments and not see the network taking OTL off the air the same night it is airing NFL games as a way to distance the show from the league.