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Friday, November 23, 2012

ESPN, the force that makes all that is solid melt into air

Posted by on Fri, Nov 23, 2012 at 6:19 PM

This week ESPN announced that it has won bidding rights to the four-team NCAA football “playoff” scheduled to begin in 2014. That’s a $5.6 billion deal over 12 years.

Is it any coincidence that this week also revealed a significant difference between how print media and ESPN personalities covered the Maryland-to-Big Ten story?

Take for instance, the Washington Post. Contrary to some claims this week, Maryland sports are given significant attention in the D.C. sports landscape—far more than, say, Boston College gets in Boston. At Maryland-Carolina games in College Park, it is longstanding tradition for the heavy hitters of DC (and national) sports media to turn out—the Kornheisers, Wilbons, and Feinsteins.

That interest was reflected in Tuesday’s Post, which included a Page One (that’s page one of the whole paper) story on the move, along with three full pages of coverage in the sports section. These included columns from Tracee Hamilton (“Maryland Makes a Money Grab”) and Mike Wise (“Desperate Not Deliberate”) that each ripped the decision. These articles pointed out that decision makers quite new to College Park had taken the step of erasing nearly 60 years of history with no consultation with the affected constituencies, in order to get a bigger annual check.

Further coverage during the week included an account of student reactions, the reaction of the blindsided ACC commissioner, John Swofford, as well as stories on individual sports likely to be highly affected such as men’s soccer and lacrosse. The paper also published an Op-Ed by former Maryland hoop star and congressman Tom McMillen, a member of the university’s Board of Regents, trenchantly criticizing the process that led to the decision.

Not all coverage was critical; the paper and website also printed predictable stories about coaches and others saying favorable things about the Big Ten. But readers of the paper have been exposed to an intelligent rendering of the multiple issues at stake in Maryland’s departure from the ACC.

Watchers of ESPN’s college basketball coverage during the week? Not so much.

To be sure, some ex-coaches on the various studio teams said critical things; ESPN could not hope (even if it wanted to) to suppress some disagreement on this issue. But the critiques rarely if ever reached the level of the deep institutional forces driving Maryland’s decision: the way competition for television dollars has driven conference realignment and presented institutions with clear incentives to abandon history and tradition. To make that point would, of course, to be call into question ESPN’s own role in this process.

Instead, viewers have most often gotten this kind of account from ESPN commentators: 1) It’s too bad that the traditional rivalries and histories are going out the window. 2) But this is an inevitable process; and 3) Change has already proceeded so far, why moan and groan about further changes (hence SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt’s tweet on Nov. 19 that the ACC of his youth was already long gone even before Maryland’s move).

Typical was the statement of Jimmy Dykes during Maui Invitation coverage that change was difficult, but could be attributed to the “culture we live in.”

The implication of Dyke’s comment, taken on its face, might be that the same cultural forces that have produced Twitter, Facebook, Barack Obama and the reality music TV show are also somehow responsible for conference realignment. But this is simply not true. It’s not cultural forces, but economic forces, specifically the competition for maximal television revenues, that is driving the process. ESPN itself is not a neutral observer in the process, but a prime participant.

The inability of most sports journalists to engage in critical social theorizing is well known. In ESPN's case, that unwillingness to criticize the status quo is married to willful obfuscation of the network’s own role in melting all that once was solid about college sports into air.

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