Tommy Tuberville Touches A Raw Nerve

With Georgia-Florida being the only big game in the SEC this week, the second-biggest story in the league other than the Cocktail Party has been Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville's remarks about ESPN's undue amount of media influence.

As in all media-related issues, the issues run so much deeper than Lee Corso or Lou Holtz.

This is a problem that is not just about ESPN, but what ESPN has become. Ten years ago, when I was a college student, SportsCenter was must-see TV. Today, it isn't. Mark Shapiro, who has thankfully left The Worldwide Leader, used the past decade to turn a once-great network, the true sports fan's haven, into a mishmash of conflicting sports and entertainment priorities that have made journalism the loser and profits the winner.

I remember what ESPN was like ten years ago: it wasn't smart-mouthing anchors having their reckless fun on-air against the backdrop of pulsating music and breathless, soap-opera coverage of the day's stars, events and intrigues. Back in the mid-1990s, and in days prior, there was still a sense that Chris Berman, Bob Ley, Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick were your bigger brothers or uncles, the people in your life who would certainly entertain you but who would also inform you with a wisdom and --- when important stories broke-an unmistakable awareness of the seriousness of the moment. These four personalities --- three still around ESPN and one (Olbermann) at MSNBC still tilting at windmills --- made you think about sports instead of riling up your emotions. They made you laugh in a more joyful way, not in the sarcastic, biting way that seems more prevalent today. What is true for all of sports, then, is also true for college football.

ESPN does have undue power, but it's more the corporate side than the Gameday side. Gameday doesn't have power. Chris Fowler is not a kingmaker in the college football business; otherwise, we'd have a playoff. It's not Fowler, Corso and Herbstreit who have left the SEC champion out of the BCS, but the BCS that has done so. It's not the Gameday crew that needs to be changed, but the whole philosophy of marketing, programming and TV coverage that dominates college football. What the now-departed Shapiro has done at ESPN, and what ABC programmers have done to regionalize coverage of college football during the life of this soon-to-expire eight-year BCS contract, are the things that have truly hurt the sport. It's been the corporate boardroom, not the Gameday set, that has cheated SEC teams, and left men like Tommy Tuberville seething in response to a media-altered reality that has clearly affected his program in a negative way.

Chris Fowler is a levelheaded, sensible and fair-minded journalist who has the not-so-enviable position of presiding over a carnival-like traveling road show where he has to play the straight man and, as the anchor for Gameday, serve in many ways as the icon and conscience of the program. But it is not Chris Fowler who has been snubbing SEC sites. He --- and Corso and Herbstreit --- are told where to go, or if not told, highly influenced to be sure. The ever-increasing pressure on cable networks to make more money in an even more cutthroat media environment --- fostered by the infotainment agenda of a pirate like Mark Shapiro or suits at ABC Sports --- is what has made Gameday gravitate away from SEC sites in recent years (that, and Steve Spurrier's departure from Florida).

In the end, College Gameday and its personalities haven't changed so much as the corporate bottom line and its drive for edgier, more conflict-driven, infotainment style programming. Tommy Tuberville is right to bash ESPN; but it's for reasons that transcend what you see on camera.

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