Analysis: ESPN misses the mark

I videotaped Sunday morning's ESPN ''Outside the Lines'' segment on the Tennessee-Alabama football feud, watched it a couple of times and shook my head in dismay.

It wasn't a hatchet job exactly, but it was seriously slanted. My problem was not so much with the things that were said, but with the things that were implied.

For instance:

1. The introduction to the piece includes film clips showing three UT

players delivering cheap shots on Alabama players. First, Tony Brown (81) is shown hitting a Bama defender in the face. Next, Kevin Simon (5) is shown making a borderline late hit on Tide quarterback Brodie Croyle. Then Jason Allen (18) is shown tackling a Bama player by the facemask. Before the report even begins, the viewer already is bombarded with subliminal messages that Tennessee cheats, even though Alabama is the school the NCAA found to be operating outside the rules.

2. What role does disreputable basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian play in a football piece on Tennessee and Alabama? The only thing Tarkanian and Tennessee have in common is that both of them start with a T. Was ''Outside the Lines'' trying to link the two somehow or did ESPN need 10 minutes of ''filler'' on Tark the Shark to pad out a 30-minute time slot?

Sunday's show consisted largely of fired Tide assistant Ronnie Cottrell and attorney Tommy Gallion blasting Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee and the NCAA. For instance, Gallion is quoted saying: ''The way the NCAA handled this, I would rather live in Iraq under Saddam Hussein if I were a coach.''

Considering the number of lives lost and ruined by Hussein's regime, such an insensitive comment exposes Gallion as a buffoon. How could an American make such a statement?

Later, Cottrell is quoted as saying: ''I want to know: Was Tennessee a street informant, like you see in TV -- the drug guy that gets busted every week but doesn't go to jail because he gives up somebody else?''

Fulmer reportedly met with the NCAA regarding Bama's recruiting practices on March 9, 2000, and the NCAA announced closure of its investigation into academic fraud allegations at UT just 11 days later (March 20, 2000). Certainly, the proximity of these events is unusual. Fortunately, Wally Renfro, senior advisor to NCAA president Myles Brand, got a chance to clarify this matter. He said the NCAA sought out Fulmer, not vice-versa. Renfro also characterized as ''ridiculous'' suggestions that the Vol coach ''cut a deal'' with the NCAA -- ratting on Bama in order to avoid penalties for his own program's transgressions.

Tennessee's administration -- probably acting on advice from legal counsel -- did not take part in the segment. Instead, athletics director Mike Hamilton provided a brief video clip that said: "Our institution has followed SEC bylaw 19.12.1 which says, when a member institution becomes aware of a violation by another member institution, then you should report that violation through your athletic director."

The saddest part of Sunday's telecast was a segment on former Vol Kenny Smith, who admitted attending maybe 10 percent of his classes at UT. Still, he implied that the school is responsible for his lack of education and his current status as a poorly paid manual laborer.

Bottom line: Sunday's ''Outside the Lines'' was a little bit of information, wrapped up in a lot of speculation and innuendo.

I don't believe ESPN has a vendetta against Tennessee and I don't believe Sunday morning's show was a hatchet job. It was simply a lame piece of quasi-journalism apparently designed to attract viewers and stir the pot a little more.

On that level, I guess, it succeeded.

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