In college football --- where there's no clear-cut postseason tournament and the national champion is almost always a politically-determined choice (given that politics almost always affects the BCS title game matchup) --- fans get upset at comments that cut against their team. Because college football isn't governed sensibly, a situation exists in which the unpredictable winds of opinion hold way too much sway. It's understandable why there's a constant and never-ending brouhaha between fans of certain teams and the commentators who doubt the Ole Alma Mater. Therefore, media analysis is always a hot topic in college football circles, and almost as much a discussion point as national "hard news" journalism.
Something very simple needs to be said at the outset of this or any other commentary that analyzes the college football media: while opinions hold too much power in this sport, it nevertheless stands that opinion will always have a necessarily disproportionate influence in this sport, even with a playoff.
Let's be honest about this: outside of the SEC, any of the league's teams have 105 teams available for three non-conference games. For Florida, the regular presence of Florida State on the annual slate means that the Gators can play only two rotating/one-time non-conference opponents out of an available pool of 104 each season. When you play this small a percentage of the teams who compete in your sport, you're simply not going to get a full and representative measure of the quality of each conference. You can say that two non-conference games can serve as an accurate barometer of the Pac-10's strength or the ACC's lack thereof, but you'd be lying --- not in the sense that you'd be wrong, but that your viewpoint could somehow be definitively proven by games against three teams out of a pool of 105.
This is what makes college basketball a vastly superior indicator of conference quality and schedule strength: in the December early-season period and then in the NCAA Tournament, teams from different conferences have it out on the court. You'd be lying if you said every April that you didn't know which conferences were better. In college football, however, you'd be lying if you said you did know which leagues and corners of the country played better ball than others. It all comes down to having a significant amount of cross-pollination when it comes to non-conference matchups. In college football, you'll never get it on a large-enough scale. Therefore, opinion will always be part of the mix. Yes, opinions should be presented and handled with care, but that doesn't mean that college football debates can be settled with 100 percent facts. That will never happen.
So with that in mind, let's turn to some media dynamics.
First of all is the fascinating transformation of Mark May in the eyes of Gator Nation. For many, Trev Alberts was always the bad guy, with May being the sensible commentator who put Trev in his place. Now, though, May --- because he happens to think that Florida is not yet the real deal --- is the new Public Enemy No. 1 among college football pundits.
The important point to take from this ESPN drama has nothing to do with May's real quality. What is essential to realize in this latest episode of "As The Bristol World Turns" is that May's quality is being viewed through the prism of how he evaluates Florida football.
One should be able to see the evident lack of basic common sense in linking prognostications with journalistic integrity. No scribe or broadcaster could ever pick an upset. No pundit would ever want to make a prediction. No thoughtful chronicler of the sport would volunteer inside information or bold insights that fans would crave.
Let's keep in mind: this game is played by hormone-addled 19-to-21-year-old male members of the human species. Predictability is the last quality you could assign to college football. Yet, predictions are an inherent part of the college football media industry, on both the print and broadcast sides. Football's popularity in this country is eclipsed only by gambling on football, and picks add to the thrill (and risk) of laying down money on the big game after a week of sizing up two teams getting ready for mortal combat. Offseason print annuals and shows like College Gameday offer picks --- prominently and consistently --- for a reason: people want them.
This simple principle --- demand --- also explains why Mark May and Trev Alberts come off as opinionated and tough-talking as they are (and have been): they're there to provoke. Let's face it: when you watch a bank of monitors every Saturday (as I do in my position as an Internet writer, along with studio analysts across the country), you are not going to have much time to formulate very carefully constructed in-depth opinions on the various contests popping up around you during each time slot. And unless or until ESPN decides to have a set-aside show that looks at perhaps five feature games in a half-hour (instead of cramming the whole day's worth of highlights and analysis into 60 minutes --- minus commercials, of course), we're going to be stuck with instant, sound-byte-style opinion. The only reason for viewers to watch these shows, then, is for these short, punchy opinions to be colorfully and emotionally presented.
Mark May, like Trev Alberts before him, may or may not be good; that's entirely open to debate. But can we get this straight? May is not an editorial decision maker at ESPN. He is asked questions by Reece Davis and set up to do halftime commentaries at the direction and insistence of ESPN brass and production crews. May is a cog in the machine who performs a role that his bosses and, on a larger level, the dynamics of modern television demand of him. With Alberts, May could be the more subtle and cerebral straight man; without Trev, May has to be more of an irritant. This is the dynamic of the broadcasting business and the structure that is constantly created and refined according to ratings considerations driven by the profit motive that affects all big corporations in this country.
When various commentators weigh in on games or teams, the proliferation of conspiracy theories that emerges is astounding. Pat Dooley of the Gainesville Sun is, in the minds of some, a bitter and petty man who is picking Alabama this Saturday because he can't get Urban Meyer on the phone as easily as he could corral Steve Spurrier.
I know journalism isn't practiced nearly as well as it could or should be these days (especially with respect to "hard news" journalism in relationship to economics, politics and social issues), but to think that Dooley or other writers are that motivated by selfish considerations is a thought so ludicrous as to not merit a single comment.
No two people will view any football game exactly alike; maybe 99 percent alike, but if you get into specifics and ask enough questions, you'll always encounter some variance of opinion on a given football game. If person A thinks Florida will win, that writer isn't automatically anti-Bama. If person B thinks Bama will win, that pundit isn't instantly enshrined in the Gator Hater fraternity.
Perhaps even more telling is the way in which criticism is interpreted by a fan base. Sometimes, criticism after a sloppy game is regarded as an appropriate expression of concern about the home team. Other times, though, the same kind of criticism is viewed as hurtful and mean-spirited, even if it's roughly similar in content. The key detail that often affects the ways in which criticism is viewed by a fan base is the identity of the commentator. Usually, an in-house commentator intimate with the program is applauded for voicing criticisms, whereas an outside or national writer gets ripped for voicing the same thing. In a conspiracy-crazy world, one must then ask the question: how will the few true conspiracies ever get revealed? If everyone's crying wolf all the time, how will a few true frauds get exposed? If the gameday prediction and/or the ratio of criticism to praise are viewed as the standards of journalistic professionalism in college football, could there be any journalists left?
If fans, in the SEC or anywhere else, want to be better analysts in their own right while receiving improved commentary from ESPN and like outlets, they'll focus more letters of complaint to ESPN brass --- not to May himself --- and will spend more time calmly studying the merits of viewpoints, rather than fixating on the end prediction or verdict. If you want to expose a pundit and charge him with genuine, entrenched bias, the only way you're going to do that is to compile references made over multiple seasons that indisputably fly in the face of evidence. In college football, though, that very kind of exercise is hard to sustain, let alone complete.
Could Mark May be a bad journalist? Perhaps. But you're not going to prove as much just by his gameday picks and spur-of-the-moment sound-byte observations. Those industry-demanded dimensions of May's analysis shed little to no light on his journalistic quality. The only way bias can be uncovered is to look for long-term trends that involve overwhelming examples of inherent, systematic, patternistic commentary against a team or school for no legitimate reason. Until then, commentators and writers have to be allowed to be wrong. It's not a sin to be wrong in college football; it's merely something that makes for disagreement. And what many fans have seemingly lost in college football (and also politics) is the ability to distinguish between disagreeable analysis and biased analysis. To disagree with an opinion does not mean you must hate the opinion giver or view the opinion giver to be unprofessional or sloppy.
Can we get past this --- maybe not right now, but by the end of the season? Opinions are unavoidable in college football, while unimpeachable facts are elusive. This means even studied observers of the sport will be wrong more than a little. Professionalism and correctness are not one and the same thing; same for their opposites. Yet, it sometimes seems that that's exactly how the college football media community is viewed.
For the sake of the journalists --- as well as the sake of common sense --- let's be able to disagree with unfavorable opinions instead of immediately viewing those opinions, and the people who gave them, as unbiased and unprofessional.