The Worldwide Cheerleader: ESPN and the College Football Playoff

Is ESPN pushing a pro-SEC agenda? We'll find out tonight when the first Playoff rankings are revealed

Dak Prescott looks to pass the ball on October 25th, 2014 in Lexington, KY. Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty

It would be cliché to suggest that you not believe everything you read. But I'm going to do it anyway, because the banality of that old bromide doesn't make it any less true.

News coverage is one thing; we're not there to see most news take place firsthand and, therefore, have to rely on professionals to report whatever facts they uncover. But everything you need to know about sports, you can witness for yourself.

Sure, if you want to busy yourself with the maudlin melodrama and mad money aspects of athletics – the way ESPN jock coddlers Tom Rinaldi and Darren Rovell do – there's plenty that transpires outside your jurisdiction. But if you concern yourself with that trivial little corner of sports in which people toss balls, slap pucks and sink putts, it's all beamed straight to you, live and direct, allowing each of us to be our own reporter and provide our own analysis.

So it's been painfully perplexing to witness ESPN use its outsize influence to prop up a Southeastern Conference that, for the first time in a decade, is arguably in a state of decline.

I'm sorry, let me back up the truck a bit. It occurs to me that you may not be aware that ESPN is trying to shape the outcome of the college football season to serve its own corporate interests. Yeah, that's happening.

ESPN has invested heavily in the SEC of late – highlighted by its launch of the SEC Network in August – and needs at least one, ideally four, of the conference's teams to make the inaugural College Football Playoff, to which ESPN holds exclusive broadcast rights (the first set of Playoff rankings will be unveiled tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET on the network as well).

It's good business sense to do whatever's in your power to advance and protect such an investment. Unfortunately, ESPN is the most powerful media brand in college football, managing a portfolio of broadcast rights to not only the Playoff, but every major conference and 33 of the 35 bowl games staged last season. This gives ESPN the power to control the narrative in the most subjective sport in America.

That narrative? "SEC! SEC! SEC! SEC!"

The Worldwide (Cheer) Leader

It can be argued that Texas A&M derived its lofty ranking through the first month of the season on the hype generated by the SEC Network's inaugural game broadcast, a 52-28 trouncing of a South Carolina team which, barely halfway through the season, already has four losses. The win immediately propelled the No. 21 Aggies to ninth in the Associated Press poll (South Carolina's previous ranking), and they eventually vaulted all the way to No. 6 on the strength of wins over Lamar, Rice, SMU and Arkansas before dropping their next three games by a combined 91 points.

The rhetoric on ESPN up to that point had been that QB Kenny Hill was making fans ask, "Johnny who?" and A&M had even garnered four first place votes at its peak. But where any reasonable commentary might now suggest A&M was a tad overrated, the conversation on ESPN unfailingly shifted to what impressive opponents could have felled such a mighty juggernaut. Until Saturday, four of the top five teams in the country – three of which have had their reputations burnished by wins over Texas A&M – were in not only the SEC, but the SEC West.

OK, maybe ESPN flirts like that with all the boys. With a stake in the fortunes of each of the major conferences, it behooves the Worldwide Leader to shake its pom-poms for them all, right? That notion is belied by either an alarming instance of bias or ignorance among ESPN's announcers and analysts, perhaps suggesting there's an editorial directive to promote SEC teams at the expense of their conferential competitors.

For example, two different broadcasters on the network, analyst Brock Huard and anchor Cassidy Hubbarth, proclaimed that Florida State – one of only two teams in this week's AP top five not in the SEC – "barely escaped," "struggled" and took Wake Forest "down to the wire" in a game it won 43-3.

Or consider the way ESPN covered a pair of wins against Tennessee earlier this season. The first, a 24-point margin of victory for the Big 12's Oklahoma, was characterized on Twitter as "Oklahoma holds on to beat Tennessee 34-10." [Emphasis added.] The second, a three-point win, 35-32, for the SEC's Georgia, was positioned, "Dawgs run away from Vols."

Despite the advent this year of a playoff, the polls matter, perhaps as much as ever. The Playoff Selection Committee's rankings are formulated by a membership whose decisions will undoubtedly be based to some degree on polls determined by lazy voters who are influenced by media coverage of the sport – coverage that is dominated by ESPN. Could a two-loss SEC team make the playoff?

Last week on The Experts, ESPN U's roundtable of college football commentators, the question was posed, "Could a two-loss SEC team make the playoff?" Mike Bellotti's circular defense of his "yes" answer had nothing to do with X's, O's or anything remotely resembling a reasoned case for inclusion. In a response that evoked Nigel Tufnel's rationalization of amplifiers that go up to 11, Bellotti simply said, "They have four teams in the top five." Teams that ESPN, through its determined campaigning, has helped place there.


ESPN's coverage of off-the-field transgressions by athletes is patently inconsistent across conferences, with clear de-emphasis of violations committed by athletes in the SEC and hyperscrutiny of those outside it. For instance, save a link on its SEC blog, ESPN has yet to report the discovery of 100 grams of marijuana and nearly $5,000 in cash in Alabama tight end Kurt Freitag's dorm room.

Meanwhile, the chaplain for Oklahoma, a "staffer" for Cincinnati and RB Joey Iosefa of Hawaii have all received pixels and airtime for their offenses. Of course, Jameis Winston is a fixture atop the network's programming blocks, tickers and home pages, mostly for news based on unfounded allegations. In fact, a statement issued on October 17th by FSU declaring it has found no evidence that Winston received compensation in return for over 2,000 autographed items was spun with the following headline: "FSU: No evidence yet of payment." The word "yet" does not appear anywhere in athletic director Stan Wilcox's actual statement, and its addition is both crucial and arguably reckless.

Contrast that with a recent feature on about Alabama linebacker D.J. Pettway, kicked off the team in 2013 for his involvement in a robbery and assault so brutal one of the assailants believed the victim dead until they gave his lifeless body an investigative kick. As the article states, "[Head coach Nick] Saban said he was satisfied with the way he handled his punishment: 11 months of what amounted to exile at a junior college in Scooba, Mississippi." The victim, as a result of the vicious attack, contemplated suicide and dropped out of school.

Not high-profile enough? Consider the treatment of the starting quarterback opposite Winston in last year's national championship game, Nick Marshall, who was cited in July for possession of a small amount of marijuana, a violation of a city ordinance. Auburn imposed a half-game suspension, drawing no criticism, while Winston received the same penalty over a publicly shouted obscenity – not a crime – and earned this line from ESPN's Mark Schlabach: "How many strikes does Winston get before he goes from being a foolish, immature college student to a complete knucklehead who can't be trusted?" Shortly thereafter, Winston's suspension was expanded to a full game.

In early 2012, Marshall was also dismissed from the University of Georgia after he was caught stealing from a teammate. You would think that, like Winston, his missteps would follow him into every broadcast. But you'd be wrong.

Shell Game

The phenomenon we're witnessing is not unlike the self-perpetuating effect of booms and busts on the American economy: the marginalized class (non-SEC) suffers more from the lows and benefits less from the highs, further depressing them over time. Clemson, an ACC team with the same record as Texas A&M before the Aggies' third loss, was still ranked lower despite starting the season five spots higher, losing to 12th-ranked Georgia and taking the No. 1 team to overtime, both on the road.

Meanwhile, the privileged class (SEC) is better able to weather setbacks, and profits disproportionately from its successes. Alabama, receiving credit for being consistently good over the last several years, dropped just four spots after its loss to Ole Miss; but the Mississippi schools are also forgiven for being among the worst Big Five programs in recent history, not only enjoying lofty rankings for their out-of-nowhere success so far this season (as opposed to the suspicion with which upstarts from other conferences are typically regarded), but bestowing "quality losses" to the teams they've defeated. Auburn is ranked two spots ahead of Notre Dame in this week's AP poll, despite losing to (then) third-ranked Mississippi State by 15 points. Meanwhile, the Irish barely lost to No. 2 Florida State by four points on a game-deciding penalty.

Three SEC teams have yet to record a conference win, going a combined 0-13 so far in league play. Five of the conference's teams are .500 or worse. Tennessee hasn't turned in a winning season since Obama's first year in office. Florida has won just seven of its last 19 games. LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M haven't lived up to preseason expectations, and Arkansas is Vanderbilt now.

The collapse has forced the most powerful media entity in college football to shift its influence to the Mississippi and Alabama schools. Where No. 3 Ole Miss' loss on Saturday might ordinarily represent a setback to such a cause, ESPN has created such an incestuous bubble of hype that there can be no arguing when these teams lose. "Alabama lost, but it was to Ole Miss...Ole Miss lost, but it was to LSU...LSU lost, but it was to Auburn… Auburn lost, but it was to Mississippi State."

But allegations of bias are finally beginning to bubble up from the fan level, prompting ESPN's College GameDay host Chris Fowler to take to twitter last week in defense of the mothership.

Of course that's true. A hale Big Ten would generate even more revenue on top of the South American economy ESPN already operates. The real question however is, if given a choice, would the network rather have a dominant Big Ten or a dominant SEC?

Fowler further acknowledged the controversy during GameDay on Saturday, weirdly breaking the fourth wall to declare "I get defensive when stupid, uninformed stuff gets repeated again and again, and people all over the world think that somehow we have a stake in having three teams from [the SEC] get in [the playoff]."

Let's forget that ESPN has built a $50 billion sportszilla by repeating stupid, uninformed stuff again and again – it does have a stake in placing as many teams in the playoff as possible. Fowler admitted as much during the same 70-second screed. Of the current power imbalance in college football that favors the SEC he said, as if to refute ESPN's aforementioned stake, "That's great for the SEC…That's great for the SEC Network…" But the SEC Network is ESPN. Even defenses of the network end up making the case against it.

Media today is a choir of witless parrots reinforcing consumers' preexisting predilections, an echo chamber that, at its best, rarely edifies consumers and, at its worst, actively manipulates them. Such criticisms were previously reserved for political and news coverage , but now we can't even trust the accuracy of reporting on our meaningless pastimes.

Maybe the saying should be "Don't read everything you believe."