Let’s say you’re a reporter covering the Big 12 or college sports at large. You know your credibility — which, when it comes down to it, is all any reporter ever has — depends on your audience believing that your coverage is based on how well you gather and interpret facts. Now imagine that your employer signs a contract worth $15 million annually, or nearly a third of a billion dollars over the life of the deal, with a single school. That happens to be what ESPN will pay to the University of Texas and its marketing agency for the rights to beam the Longhorn Network into homes and saloons for the next 20 years, beginning next week. Not included in that sticker price is ESPN forfeiting any right to be believed on what it does and doesn’t report about Texas or its rivals for the next, oh, two decades, give or take.
Texas already had the biggest war chest in the Big 12. Because the conference divvies up money based on television appearances, Texas already was scooping up more of the broadcast revenue than any other school (at least, that was the case in 2007), and that’s to say nothing of the fact that Texas is already Texas to begin with. The Longhorn Network may be a case of the rich getting richer, but the reason the rich get richer is the same reason the rich were stinking rich to begin with: a vast fan base, deep tradition and fanaticism unchecked by any sense of scale. More money to Texas means more imbalance in the already-shaky Big 12 — which right now, with just 10 remaining members, may already be the smallest 12 in the world.
The relationship between the Worldwide Leader and Texas may already be so intertwined that the mere mention of Texas carries the connotation of product placement. Here’s Sports Illustrated’s college football maven Stewart Mandel breaking it down in a recent mailbag column:
From the moment this 20-year, $300 million deal was announced, it’s been astounding just how deeply the company is getting into bed with one of the schools it covers journalistically. … ESPN isn’t just testing the separation between church and state with Texas; there isn’t one. Case in point: The ever-popular GameDay crew (Chris Fowler and Co.) will be appearing live from Austin for the channel’s Aug. 26 debut. ESPN and Texas are now one and the same, and you can’t tell me it won’t affect the way Gameday, SportsCenter, Outside the Lines, et. al., cover Mack Brown’s program. In a sport where many fans already live in a constant state of paranoia that the media is propping up someone else at their expense … well, ESPN is flat-out doing it.
Journalists — real journalists, not the human Muppets you see shilling for Applebee’s or Nike or Titleist — haaaaate this sort of thing. Perception of bias can be as damaging to a reporter’s work as actual bias, especially when your audience is as territorial as college football or basketball fans are. Write a story favorable to the Longhorns? You’re in bed with Bevo. Write a story that irks Austin? You’re overcompensating, trying too hard to assert independence.
I have full faith that the reporters on the ground for ESPN will start out trying to balance their coverage as though nothing has happened. But I also know what money weighs. The pressure will increase over time, in quiet ways, not to piss off Texas, at least not without an excellent reason. (Till now, pissing off Texas has always been its own excellent reason.) Already it’s hard to read the top of a column upbraiding Texas A&M for its attempt to defect to the SEC and wonder whether phrases like “inferiority complex” are really fair for an ESPN writer to use when it’s ESPN helping to cement A&M’s inferiority, no complex about it.
Pat Forde, ESPN.com’s national college football columnist, acknowledged the impossibility of the situation in an Outside the Lines interview:
I’m frankly a little troubled by the Longhorn Network. I know it’s been a very positive business situation I believe for our employers at ESPN, but what it does, to me, is it singles out a specific school as opposed to a collective. And when you do that, you are essentially playing favorites. … If it gets into an uneven playing field, and ESPN is part and parcel of creating an uneven playing field, then I can understand why fans of other teams would have a problem with that. It creates a perception for those of us on the dotcom side and on the news side that are covering these teams that we are going to play favorites as well.
In making itself synonymous with Texas, ESPN has managed to make its journalists implicitly part of the Longhorn brand as well. Any reporter comfortable with that arrangement probably would rather be doing something other than journalism in the first place.