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ESPN, The NFL, and Ryan Braun: Peas in a Pod

This is a good week if you like seeing sports giants wind up with egg on their faces.

First, the most recent news on ESPN, which reportedly backed out of a documentary project with PBS’ “Frontline” on concussions after pressure from the NFL according to the New York Times. It’s far from the first time the network has gotten way too close to a league it should be covering objectively (see: LeBron’s “The Decision”). From the Times:

Last week, several high-ranking officials convened a lunch meeting at Patroon, near the league’s Midtown 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 N.F.L.; 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 people 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.

Both the NFL and ESPN deny the allegations of pressure. ESPN’s main reason for dropping out was apparently a concern about a lack of editorial control, but staffers from “Frontline” take umbrage.

But Raney Aronson-Rath, the deputy executive producer of “Frontline,” said that 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 Web sites, and ESPN would have control of everything it televised or posted on the Web.

In fact, it seems that ESPN knew damn well what it was doing when it partnered with “Frontline.” Deadspin, as always doing the Lord’s work, dug up a quote from the TCA’s earlier this month where ESPN producer Dwayne Bray said as much: “So we made a conscious decision when we were presented with this opportunity to literally get in bed with FRONTLINE.”

Not that anyone should be shocked by the NFL’s nefarious involvement in such dealings. This is, after all, the league that promoted a big hit by the Bears’ Jon Bostic in last week’s preseason game as a way to draw traffic to its video site – going so far as to call the hit “spectacular. That is, until the NFL levied a fine against Bostic and then the word “spectacular” was wiped from the NFL’s website. All the fuss despite the fact that the refs saw nothing illegal about the hit. Of course, this is the league that has made plenty of money off of monster hits but cracked the hammer on the New Orleans Saints for their “bounty program.” And the NFL is now promoting safe, health-concerned football all while battling old players in lawsuits. Maybe that’s why there are almost 9 million hits when you Google “NFL concussion hypocrisy.” To the NFL, the present and future are safe and secure for players but the past never happened and ESPN is fine to be complicit in that lie.

Watch “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” preview on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

But the NFL and ESPN aren’t the only hypocritical jerk-wads this week. No, Ryan Braun has horned in on their territory as well. But at least he finally came clean and totally apologized yesterday for all of that pointless fuss he kicked up over defending himself against PED charges when he actually knew he was using PEDs all along. (Like when Anthony Weiner spent all that money for a P.I. to find who “hacked” his Twitter feed, ya know?) Anyway, Braun pseudo-apologized earlier this summer when he was hit with a big suspension by MLB for PED use after having vehemently defended himself against the same charges last year. At the time of Braun’s spirited defense in February 2012, it was bad enough that he blamed the collector, Dino Laurenzi Jr., and intimated a vast conspiracy. That conspiracy theory apparently grew larger, as a report earlier this week claimed Braun called fellow players for support and accused Laurenzi of being two horrible things that meant he was out to get Braun: an anti-semite and a Cubs fan.

In a statement released yesterday, Braun finally came “clean” – see what I did there? – and admitted that, yes, he used PEDs, and that, yes, he totally threw Laurenzi under the bus and expects to be forgiven with a quick, “my bad.”

I deeply regret many of the things I said at the press conference after the arbitrator’s decision in February 2012. At that time, I still didn’t want to believe that I had used a banned substance. I think a combination of feeling self righteous and having a lot of unjustified anger led me to react the way I did. I felt wronged and attacked, but looking back now, I was the one who was wrong. I am beyond embarrassed that I said what I thought I needed to say to defend my clouded vision of reality. I am just starting the process of trying to understand why I responded the way I did, which I continue to regret. There is no excuse for any of this.

… I sincerely apologize to everybody involved in the arbitration process, including the collector, Dino Laurenzi, Jr. I feel terrible that I put my teammates in a position where they were asked some very difficult and uncomfortable questions. One of my primary goals is to make amends with them.

Hopefully, the final “them” also includes Laurenzi.

Either way, it’s far too little, way too late. Braun’s a fraud. We all knew it. But that he’s just now admitting shows the same disconnect with reality ESPN and the NFL seem to have. Moreover, it’s a willful disconnect with reality; as long as they all stand around with their fingers in the ears, singing “la la la,” while the money falls around them, they don’t care about the scorched earth they leave behind. The past seems irrelevant to them when, in fact, it’s the past that’s going to completely undo them in the end. The enduring failure by all three of these parties to accept their responsibilities isn’t shocking nor is their lack of acknowledgment that they’re complicit in the things they try to rail against. It doesn’t shock us as we live in a world where the President denies spying on his own citizens despite the evidence and a mayor justifies tearing down a school field house without public notice or even a permit.

And, yes, in light of those last two examples, worrying about whether a baseball player uses PEDs to recover from an injury faster is a much lower priority than it appears in this space. But sport entangle itself in our lives just as politics does even as it’s supposed to provide distraction from the day-to-day horse crap that fills our lives from the outside world. But the pile grows larger thanks to sports – not despite of sports – and we can throw the NFL, ESPN, and Braun on the pile.

And, yet, perhaps the worst indictment is saved for us. Because, after all, we’ll eventually forget all about Braun and we’ll still watch ESPN and the NFL. I’ll certainly watch the “Frontline” documentary, too, as will many people thanks to this unintended publicity. But, in the end, once we’ve thrown all of these people on the pile, we may as well jump in, too, and wallow. Because for all my fire-breathing and groaning, at the end of the day, I’ll still give them all the ratings they want and need and that makes me just as bad as them. I know I won’t look away; I’ll tune in for as many NFL games as I can this season and that includes on ESPN even if it means having to endure yet another season of Chris Berman and his dumb “whoops” and nicknames. And in a few months, I won’t even remember Laurenzi’s name.

In the end, that may make me even worse than any of the people I’ve railed against here and I hate myself for it. And I hate them even more for making self-loathing such a large part of the distraction.