Bart Doan at The Student Section raised an interesting question regarding ESPN's involvement with the SEC Network and its overall effect on college football. Go read it before finishing this.
There are two separate issues here that Doan piled into one column without really signifying that they are truly separate.
The first issue is whether and to what extent the new network will affect ESPN's broadcasts. It's about integrity in coverage, basically.
That question will always be there for any outlet that both broadcasts sports and attempts to do analysis and journalism, and it's been an issue for ESPN for a while. Hockey nearly disappeared from SportsCenter when the NHL's contract went to NBC. NASCAR races on ESPN or ABC get more attention than those on other networks. College GameDay shows up at games that will appear on ESPN or ABC far more often than it doesn't, and it's not just to make Kirk Herbstreit's travel easier.
Doan also brings up that ESPN has said it doesn't expect the SEC Network to do investigative journalism and takes it as a hint that the SECN won't be on the front lines of controversial stories about the conference. That's probably true. As long as other ESPN properties don't slack on that kind of work in relation to the SEC, I can't get too worked up about it. I think everyone knows the SECN exists to promote the conference more than anything.
Of course, I am not sure how we would tell if ESPN was slacking on the investigative side. The best investigative journalism department for college sports is Yahoo! Sports, and it's not close. The biggest SEC scandal of recent years was the Cam Newton story, something Pete Thamel broke for the New York Times (he's since moved to Sports Illustrated). More recently, ESPN made headlines for the wrong reasons when it pulled out of Frontline's special on concussions in the NFL. If the SECN's existence impairs ESPN's journalism side, I'm not sure how we would be able to tell.
The other issue is to what degree ESPN's coverage will affect the College Football Playoff.
Doan cites how he knows of an AP voter and a Coaches Poll voter who often didn't bother with their own votes and had someone else do them, and the former mainly used ESPN highlights to form an opinion when he did vote. Voters being lazy is old news though; several Harris Poll voters confessed to not ever watching undefeated Utah in 2008 despite their votes affecting the BCS standings.
Given that ESPN is the single most influential entity in college football, I have no doubt that its coverage will impact how some people on the selection committee think. However, I think the committee format is better insulation against undue influence than the old poll format was. When over 100 people are voting, people feel like they can get away with more because hey, it's just one ballot out of 150. What does it matter if I don't pay close attention?
The best defense against a hypothetically SEC-biased ESPN would be to stock the committee with strong personalities with ties to other areas of the country. You don't have to have everyone be impervious to such a thing, just a majority.
The initial committee, at least, has that. At the absolute, very least, Barry Alvarez, Pat Haden, Oliver Luck, Tom Osborne, Dan Radakovich, Mike Tranghese, and Ty Willingham won't be under some kind of pro-SEC spell, and that's seven of the 13. Stanford grad Condoleezza Rice and former Air Force Academy superintendent General Mike Gould probably wouldn't be unduly friendly towards the SEC either. That's not to impugn Tom Jernstedt (an Oregon grad) or Steve Wieberg (a national columnist for 30 years), or even to suggest that Jeff Long and Archie Manning will somehow be radically partisan towards the SEC beyond all reason. I'm just cataloging that the room for worry with this present committee isn't very big.
I think the doomsday scenario people fear is what I put as the photo for this post, something that actually didn't happen on ESPN. Gary Danielson spent time on CBS's broadcast of the 2006 SEC Championship Game making the case for why Florida should get a spot in the BCS National Championship Game over Michigan. He put up that infamous schedule graphic where, even granting Michigan two points for playing undefeated No. 1 Ohio State, the Gators' resumé overwhelmed the Wolverines' slate. Florida ended up edging out Michigan ever so slightly for the right to play the Buckeyes for the national title, and the rest is history.
Ironically, the argument most associated with ESPN at the time was Herbstreit pushing for Michigan over Florida. He was a bit more nuanced than Danielson was, but his judgment of Michigan being a better team for the national championship game did not win out. ESPN may be highly influential, but it doesn't dictate things.
To answer the question in the title of this post, yes, the SEC Network does indeed raise ethical issues. Some are issues within ESPN itself that the network has always struggled with and will forever have to tackle. It has its good times and bad times in that regard, and I don't see that changing.
There is more hope regarding the playoff because ESPN has no say in how it operates. It's an entity run by all ten I-A conferences and Notre Dame, which means there are ten voices to do battle with the SEC's one voice. There is an enormous amount of money at stake with the playoff—far more than with the BCS—so you can believe those ten entities will do everything they can to prevent the SEC from taking more than its fair share. The current committee doesn't appear to be all that susceptible to a pro-SEC narrative, and they'll make sure future ones aren't either.
Ultimately, the best hope for keeping ESPN honest is that Fox Sports 1 really does turn into a real ESPN competitor someday. If it does, people who think the worldwide leader has too much of an SEC bias will have somewhere else to turn. Fox Sports has been spending on talent lately in grabbing Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel, both of whom will appear on TV in addition to their website writing. It's going to be a long, long road to get there, but at least someone is trying.
In the meantime an ACC Network is probably going to come about sooner than later, and it's likely to have a structure similar to the SECN given that ESPN owns all of the ACC's rights. That'll give the SEC some competition, no? Of course, the fact that no one accuses ESPN of having a pro-ACC bias despite it owning all of those rights shows that part of ESPN's narrative generation habits are, in fact, not influenced by the business side of the house.
The SEC's fans are, for better and for worse, the most rabid in college football. A business that makes money by selling attention to advertisers is naturally going to cater to the people who give the most attention. I do not envy those in charge in Bristol who have to balance all of the competing interests in crafting their coverage.