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Falk: ESPN pulling out of concussion series is a major blow

Published August 24, 2013 4:43 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The boy was sitting in the trainer's room at his high school when I met him.

He had been ecstatic about the start of football season, but just a few hours into his first practice of the season, one of his teammates hit him in the side of his head during a drill. He continued to practice that morning, but when the pain in his head didn't subside, he began to worry.

"It's hard to be in here when they're all out there," American Fork junior Haydn Bowden told me a couple weeks back.

But, as with the rest of his teammates, he had sat through the lecture about concussions, what they felt like and how serious they could be. So he wasn't going to risk it anymore, even if it meant losing playing time.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, one of the world's largest sports journalism entities was removing itself from the production of a documentary about concussions that, forgive the word choice, seems to have been too hard-hitting for some.

ESPN ended its affiliation with "Frontline" on an investigative series on concussions after, according to reports, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, rankled by the piece, met with ESPN executives.

The NFL has denied it demanded ESPN to withdraw from production, though it can hardly be a surprise that the network would do so. Football is a multimillion-dollar industry in America, and the game's popularity here continues to grow even amid mounting concerns about its violent nature and the long-term brain injuries found more and more frequently in its former players. "The Worldwide Leader in Sports," meanwhile, has paid handsomely for the rights to broadcast NFL games on its network.

ESPN is a business, and a successful one at that. In a time when journalism companies, newspapers and magazines all across the world are laying off staffers as profit margins and news holes shrink, concerns about the diminished role of the Fourth Estate are rooted in a sad but real truth.

ESPN's successes, however, have allowed the company to acquire top investigative talents, which frequently break news and produce tremendous acts of journalism.

Which brings me back to young Haydn in Utah County.

His knowledge of how serious a concussion can be comes thanks to the hard work of researchers, scientists and academics, but also that of reporters who have helped shine light on a dark and complex issue.

ESPN, obviously, is not the only outlet capable of such work.

The "Frontline" report, featuring the work of some talented ESPN reporters, will still be aired.

But to see such a resource-rich entity pull its backing on this is disheartening. This is an important fight and to pull backing from it — even for a day — is a major blow for all of us.

afalk@sltrib.com

Twitter: @aaronfalk