by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

When Paddy (Crerand) introduced me to Sir Matt (Busby) when I was still a player, I was trembling. I was in awe. Those managers had control of their clubs and control of the Press.”--Sir Alex Ferguson, retired Manchester United manager

Strong personalities exerting undue influence over the sports media is not a recent development. Readers overseas, those familiar with English soccer in particular, especially know of what we are speaking. As outlined in a couple of in-depth chapters in Michael Crick’s explosive biography entitled The Boss: The Many Sides of Alex Ferguson, the author details how the now-retired Manchester United manager perfected a form of media manipulation that might have been better-served in Cold War Eastern Europe or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

And it wasn’t just the sporting press that was intimidated; one of Britain’s most respected provincial newspapers, the Manchester Evening News, part of the supposedly liberal Guardian Group, was so deferential to Ferguson and Man United that it would reportedly not make its files available for research on a Man U-related story without club approval, in the process denying Crick the most basic of access to files that were usually open to all reporters for a nominal fee. Even powerful Sky Sports executives, fearing reprisal, declined to talk to Crick about a book that might portray Ferguson and Man United in a less-than-flattering light.

We mention all of this because the same sorts of things have been happening on this side of the Atlantic for a good while, too. And much of that Alex Ferguson-style bully pulpit has long been practiced by the NFL. Only you wouldn’t know it from the majority of national sports media sources whose idea of “challenging” the NFL is limited to politically-correct diatribes involving subjects like the name of the Washington Redskins or the Rooney Rule.

The latest example of the NFL’s strong-armed tactics with the national sports media was reported in the summer by the New York Times’ James Andrew Miller and Ken Belson, who suggested that “the league” (as represented by commissioner Roger Goodell and president Steve Bornstein) had a not-so-pleasant lunch meeting with ESPN execs John Skipper and John Wildhack, expressing the NFL’s dismay at the direction of an upcoming documentary that was to be jointly-produced by ESPN and the public affairs entity Frontline, a two-part series about the league’s contentious handling of head trauma injuries. Almost immediately thereafter, ESPN ended its association with Frontline and thus any involvement with a potentially damning indictment of the league.

At least ESPN has on occasion dared to explore some of this controversial territory in the past, although there can be little doubt that its decision to sever ties with Frontline, and the very sensitive concussion topic, had the NFL’s fingerprints all over it. As could be expected, the league outwardly denied exerting any influence, and ESPN cited “editorial control issues” for its decision to put the sword to its relationship with Frontline, but those explanations merely caused most sports media insiders to roll their eyes.

Given the league’s immense popularity and the heated demand from broadcasters to acquire rights to its games, informed observers suggest that few direct requests would have had to have been made by the league, which knows that broadcasters like ESPN are both journalistic and entertainment entities. And no league is as adept at exploiting the divisions between them as the NFL.

“This is a conflicted relationship because it’s a contractual relationship,” said Robert Boland, who teaches sports management at New York University and was quoted in the Times story. “The climate right now surrounding all sports, and to some degree journalism, is muddied because there is so much competition for content, so any dividing line between editorial and content is blurred.”

Of course, all of this occurred just before the proposed settlement of the NFL’s concussion-related lawsuits last month in a Pennsylvania court, as the league and the more than 4500 plaintiffs agreed to a class-action settlement of roughly $765 million. Which was apparently a signal to the vast majority of the nation’s sports media that the story was effectively over. Indeed, it was as if Roger Goodell himself was channeling his inner Frank Drebin and parroting the late Leslie Nielsen’s line (“Nothing to see here”) from the original Police Squad movie as a fireworks plant was exploding in the background.

Since the settlement announcement, most of the national sports media have retreated back to safer ground and ignored ongoing developments regarding the concussion suit. Which many sycophants were quick to declare a huge win for the league while also assuming its denial of any guilt was proof of something very close to innocence on the part of their beloved NFL.

Few sports writers or broadcasters ever went in-depth in the first place to explore the focus of the retired player lawsuits---that NFL players were unable to make informed decisions about playing football because the league concealed information about the devastating impact of repeated headshots. Settlement or not, there is plenty of territory in that vast expanse for sports journalists to further cultivate. But few ever did so, running the risk of offending the league, linked for years to most of the major networks (CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN/ABC)...many of which are apparently comfortable to play the role of Izvestia to the NFL’s Politburo.

But there are still more chapters to be written regarding the NFL’s concussion issue, which, to the dismay of the league’s many cheerleaders in the press corps, is not yet a closed subject just because of the proposed settlement. Especially since there is a chance the settlement won’t stick. Judge Anita Brody has yet to ratify the terms and could be swayed to nullify on a variety of fronts, which might include simply declaring the settlement unfair (perhaps as a reaction to the NFL not admitting any liability) or reacting to enough plaintiffs deciding to opt out of the settlement and pursue legal action on their own. Brody could also limit her federal judicial decree appropriately and make extensive written exceptions, so the settlement could also be ruled to be not exclusive, opening the door for many older players, and others who aren’t certified in the class, to proceed forward with their own suits if they wish.

Don’t expect the owners to fight Brody, either; they are justifiably terrified what a blue collar Philadelphia jury would do with an award in the billions.

Meanwhile, specifics of the settlement could also dismay the judge. Such as the recently-revealed provision that disqualifies most players who died before Jan. 1, 2006 (even if they were diagnosed with football-related brain damage), which would shut out the families of players with the earliest documented cases. The settlement also reportedly caps payments at $3 million for dementia, $4 million for CTE, and $5 million for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or another severe cognitive impairment, raising the real possibility that the $765 million won’t be nearly enough. More-awkward specifics of the settlement continue to emerge, which some legal insiders believe could also cause Brody to think twice before rubber-stamping the proposed agreement.

Whatever. We’re not going to hold our breath for the US sports media to pick up the baton on this still-fertile storyline; the days when we count upon the likes of reporters such as Howard Cosell or Red Smith to “tell it like it is” are long over. Sadly, the most influential members of the current sports media are in the NFL’s pocket, just like those English journalists who dared not offend Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson. Because, as far as the majority of the sports media is concerned regarding the concussion issue, there’s nothing to see any longer.

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