College football fans across the country expressed a wide variety of emotions Saturday during ESPN’s College Gameday show after the network aired a short lead-in piece setting up a discussion segment on today’s SEC Championship game in Atlanta between South Carolina and Auburn.
The 90-second piece showed various images of SEC football as a narrator set the scene for today’s game. But what caused a noticeable reaction across the country on the web was what the narrator said about TCU. A minute into the video, the voiceover proclaimed, “TCU would never make it to Atlanta. In Atlanta, we settle things on the field.”
Immediately after the piece aired, almost every manner of college football fan on message boards and Twitter expressed real-time surprise, disdain and in the case of many SEC fans, sheer ecstasy.
In observing that widespread reax, there was one common theme: Thousands of fans thought that ESPN was making a statement about what it thought of the legitimacy of TCU as a college football power.
But in that reaction, most viewers overlooked the fact that the piece was written and narrated by ESPN.com writer Wright Thompson - which an on-screen graphic noted at the beginning of the video.
As for Thompson’s own bias, he’s a Mississippi native who attended Missouri, so who knows where he’s coming from.
The problem wasn’t any bias Thompson brought to the video piece, it was the manner in which the feature was presented on ESPN. The video lead-in obviously didn’t come off to most viewers as an opinion piece from a media guy who grew up in the deep south.
Instead, people took the piece to mean that ESPN was endorsing what was actually merely Thompson’s individual view.
While I’m sure there’s plenty of ESPN employees who feel the same way Thompson does about TCU’s BCS presence, I’m pretty certain that the folks in Bristol who actually run the network would never want viewers left with the impression that the network has an overarching bias about any team.
Because an important part of the business model of ESPN entails securing play-by-play rights to college football games. It certainly wouldn’t help the network in negotiations for those rights if its potential NCAA partners thought it had a bias against certain teams or leagues.
That business model is also why ESPN-TV’s college football news coverage for decades has been largely fluff. Breaking the Camgate story was a departure from that philosophy, but that coverage originally emanated and has been focused on ESPN.com.
The writers who broke the ESPN.com story that led to the NCAA addressing Cam Newton’s eligibility, Pat Forde, Chris Low and Mark Schlabach, have been largely unseen on ESPN television - except for occasional appearances by Forde.
Though the most explosive and damaging - especially to the SEC - allegation in ESPN’s Camgate reporting came from ESPN-TV reporter Joe Schad. Less than a week after Forde, Low and Schlabach broke the story, Schad reported that Newton and his father placed phone calls to Mississippi State football recruiters that included the Newtons referencing a “pay-for-play” scheme during those conversations.
Since Schad originally broke the story, there’s been a distinctly less-than-enthusiastic followup on ESPN television, despite the fact that Schad continues to tout the story during appearances on various radio shows, like Paul Finebaum’s nationally syndicated weekday program.
Of the two Camgate angles that its staffers broke, ESPN-TV is largely ignoring the story that includes, by far, the more serious allegations. Allegations that, if true, would almost certainly lead to Cam Newton being ruled ineligible.
I realize ESPN has certain biases in what and how it reports on many subjects, but based on the track record of its softball college football reporting over the years, I feel pretty confident that the network is in no big hurry to deliberately marginalize any team’s BCS chances.