Pressure from the National Football League led to ESPN's decision Thursday to pull out of an investigative project with "Frontline" regarding head injuries in the NFL, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation.
ESPN, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., pays the NFL more than $1 billion a year to broadcast "Monday Night Football," a ratings juggernaut and cherished source of revenue for Disney.
"Frontline," the PBS public affairs series, and ESPN had been working for 15 months on a two-part documentary, to be aired in October. But ESPN's role came under intense pressure by the league, the two people said, after a trailer for the documentary was released Aug. 6, the day the project was discussed at a Television Critics Association event in Beverly Hills.
Last week, several high-ranking officials convened a lunch meeting at Patroon, near the league's Manhattan headquarters, according to the two people, who requested anonymity because they were prohibited by their superiors from discussing the matter publicly.
It was a table for four: Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL; Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network; ESPN's president, John Skipper; and John Wildhack, ESPN's executive vice president for production.
At the combative meeting, the sources said, league officials conveyed their displeasure with the direction of the documentary, which is expected to describe a narrative that has been captured in various news reports over the past decade: the league turning a blind eye to evidence that players were sustaining brain trauma on the field that could lead to profound, long-term cognitive disability.
Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the NFL, said Friday that the lunch meeting was requested by ESPN several weeks ago.
"At no time did we formally or informally ask them to divorce themselves from the project," Aiello said. "We know the movie was happening and the book was happening, and we respond to them as best we can. We deny that we pressured them."
Chris LaPlaca, an ESPN spokesman, said Thursday that ESPN's decision was not based on any concerns about hurting its contractual relationship with the NFL. Rather, the network said in a statement, it was ending its official association with "Frontline" because it did not have editorial control of what appeared on the public TV public affairs series.
But Raney Aronson-Rath, the deputy executive producer of "Frontline," said ESPN executives had for more than a year understood the ground rules of the collaboration: "Frontline" would keep editorial control of what it televised or put on its websites, and ESPN would have control of everything it televised or posted on the Web.