No, ESPN Won't Pull Its BCS Punches. And It Doesn't Matter If They Do

If you've been reading the college football Interwebs over the last few days, you've probably heard about a column by College Football News' Pete Fiutak (and I won't refer to them as CFN because, despite what they might think, no one who doesn't read the site knows what CFN is) saying that CFN told its writers not to write about some of the flaws in the BCS, even though it didn't tell its writers not to write about the flaws in the BCS, even though it didn't matter because none of the writers wanted to write about the flaws in the BCS.

And he added that now that CFN is no longer telling its writers not to write about some of the flaws in the BCS, even though it didn't tell its writers not to write about the flaws in the BCS first place and it didn't matter because none of the writers wanted to write about the flaws in the BCS -- they're going to write about all the flaws in the BCS.

No, it doesn't make any sense. You were expecting St. Augustine?

Over the past few years when Fox had the big bowls, I’d get a call or five every late September from various higher-ups making sure that CFN (who provides content for FoxSports.com) didn’t go over the top when commenting on the BCS. To be fair and thankful, no one ever told me or anyone else at CFN what we could and couldn’t write or tried to limit what we could say on TV and radio appearances. That was never a problem (outside of not commenting on some of the announcer teams) since we’ve made it a point to not get dragged down in all the "BCS Sucks" rhetoric (again, since the ranting goes nowhere), and there was never any discussion of what we could and couldn’t write and say when it came to the BCS chase and how the rankings were shaping up. Fire on the process and the system … not really. Go nuts on what was happening within the system … fine. It’s extremely doubtful that the ESPNers will get the same leeway and freedom.

My mother has passed down a statement from her grandmother, to the effect of: Don't measure other people by your half-bushel barrel. Meaning: Don't assume everyone's motives and actions are as bad as yours. First of all, anyone who draws on anything with "Fox" in front of it as an indicator of journalistic norms needs to get out more.

ESPN is unabashedly about making money through entertainment, and that’s fine. However, the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader is to hard-hitting sports commentary what Tiger Woods is to Buddhism. Each throws out the idea of doing something noble in an attempt to distract from what they’d really rather be doing. ...

Of all the ESPN talking heads, the best talent is on the college football side. It’ll be a shame if Mark May, Kirk Herbstreit, Rece Davis, and Chris Fowler are muzzled, or have to talk cryptically, under orders to keep the debate and the BCS discussion as vanilla as possible. More importantly, it’ll be unfair to the sport if the ones doing the judging for two-thirds of the BCS rankings aren’t getting the full message and aren’t voting with all the information they should have.

So ESPN "is to hard-hitting sports commentary what Tiger Woods is to Buddhism," but we have to worry that it will hold back on its hard-hitting anti-BCS sports commentary now that the channel has the BCS? What?

Never mind that there was no sign of silence when ABC first had the BCS before Fox's run began. (Or that one of the Fox broadcasters used the Boise State-Oklahoma game to advocate for a playoff -- while the game was still going on.)

But the fact of the matter is that, while some ESPN commentators have endorsed a playoff, their support has been notably lukewarm.

Herbstreit (in 2007, when there was no reason to pull punches):

More and more, I am coming around. I like the plus-one idea. You take a season like this year when you have a bunch of teams with one loss. Then throw an undefeated Kansas in there. Who's to say who is No. 1? Or who should play for the national title? [Emphasis added.]

That's far from a ringing endorsement of an eight- or sixteen-team playoff.

Davis:

I'm just saying the pined-for playoff wouldn't necessarily be college football utopia. ... I'm not opposed to playoffs. In fact, I'd love to see them seed 1-4 in the bowls and have the winners play. But I also put a great deal of value on the pursuit of a championship we witness every week.

Again, a nod to a plus-one system but not exactly a wild-eyed denunciation of the BCS.

The only one of those mentioned for which I could find even a paraphrased, quoteless, "animated" anti-BCS stance was Fowler. And who really wants Chris Fowler to determine anything of import about college football?

Back to Fiutak:

Remember, this is a network that ditched Harold Reynolds for giving a woman a hug, Steve Phillips for having a taste for porky chicks, and suspended Tony Kornheiser for being the one to say the empress had on the wrong clothes when he called out Hannah Storm’s Forever 21 ensemble. Do you think for a single, solitary second that the big-wigs are going to allow the college football analysts to say one negative thing about the BCS? If you thought things were bad during the Bonds on Bonds fiasco, just watch and see if the ESPNers stammer and tap dance when they have to answer the question of who’s better, the dominant Big 12 team, the juggernaut Pac 10 team, or the very good team from a conference that's getting $2 billion. And it’s unfortunate.

Wow. Wow. See, dealing with misogynistic behavior = pro-SEC bias. To recap the incidents involved: Harold Reynolds was accused of sexual harassment (though there indications that the move might have been unfair, and a wrongful termination case was settled out of court, large corporations get nervous when harassment allegations start flying); Steve Phillips was having an affair with a lower-ranking employee and Tony Kornheiser launched a personal broadside against an ESPN colleage on an ESPN radio affiliate. (I'm not even linking to what he said on this blog.)

Now, you can say whatever you want about each of these cases. But responding to allegations of harassment, firing someone after a salacious extramarital affair becomes public and suspending someone after he attacks a fellow employee (which ESPN clearly said later was the cause of the suspension) are hardly journalistic sins to begin with, much less in any way comparable to favoring one conference over another. (And people seem to forget that, while the deal was not as large or as broad, ESPN had a television deal back when Herbstreit virtually did everything but start singing "Hail to the Victors" while campaigning for Michigan to play in the title game in 2006).

Blutarsky makes a good point about the difference between Fox and ESPN. There is perhaps no better home for the BCS than the Worldwide Leader, and it's hard to see any other home for the Series.

I’m not saying the WWL is going to encourage its talking heads to go out of their way to antagonize the BCS suits, but, on the other hand, if they are critical, what would the BCS do about it?  Take its business somewhere else that pays as well?  Where would that be exactly?

Even one of the Web's best-spoken playoff supporters thinks it could go either way.

For precisely that reason, I assume everyone at ESPN -- from the top down -- will continue to insist the free discourse won't be reined in. ...

It's also possible that a $500 million deal with the newly spin-obsessed BCS -- along with the blockbuster $2 billion deal with the SEC and lucrative agreements with the other "Big Six" conferences, will motivate someone in Bristol, Conn., to make a phone call or five to make sure the on-air talent doesn't go over the top in criticizing the network's investment.

Of course it's possible, and no one can entirely rule it out. But articles like Fiutak's look less like an honest discussion about the possibility of media bias -- especially since it comes from someone who works for an organization that he admitted was biased kind of not really yes -- by reflecting that criticism of ESPN, which no one really likes all that much. The bonus of course is that if ESPN doesn't criticize the BCS enough for the system's opponents, it can be blamed solely on the company's profit motive or pro-BCS bias and not because the network's job also isn't to be an anti-BCS propaganda outlet (this is a trick both sides try in politics).

But there's really no ESPN-related evidence right now to support the allegation. And even if there was, if we all don't care about ESPN, why does it matter what they say? Unless you want them to agree with your side to begin with.

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