The East Coast Bias (Part II): Conference Homerism v. The Narrative

As reported previously here at Dawg Sports, Nestor over at Bruins Nation published a lengthy and well-argued article on the existence of the East Coast bias in response to my repeated claims that such a bias does not exist. I began offering my reply on Thursday and the time has come to continue providing the detailed answer that Nestor's fine posting warrants.

Is it possible that it's really just a bias against bad fashion choices?

One of the illustrations Nestor offered concerned E.S.P.N.'s recent look at college football rivalries. Alongside Alabama-Auburn and Michigan-Ohio State, the Worldwide Leader highlighted California-Southern California. This moved Nestor to observe:

Yes, the focus of their biggest "west coast rivalry" this past weekend was Cal v. USC. Okay, we get it. Cal is one of the favorites to win the Pac-10 along with USC. We get that. They deserve that. But since when exactly the "Cal v. USC rivalry" has been on the same level as "Michigan v. OSU" or "Alabama v. Auburn"? . . . [E.S.P.N. doesn't] have to mention that game as a rivalry game without even mentioning how UCLA may have a chance to end [the Bruins'] streak of futility against SC at the Rose Bowl. By doing that those clowns [at] ESPN were pretty much snubbing their noses [at] all the Pac-10 teams in general. They don't really care about presenting a sincere/accurate picture of the traditions of West Coast college [football]. And by doing so they do a disservice to sports fans across the country while marketing themselves as a national network.

I am sympathetic to this argument, although I believe it is indicative of a problem different from that identified by Nestor. (To this subject I shall turn subsequently, as I believe it lies at the heart of the issue under discussion.)

I can appreciate the extent to which television, a medium seemingly designed to promote short attention spans, oversimplifies history and tradition, reducing them to tiny morsels devoid of nuance or complexity. Nestor noted Alabama's and Auburn's mutual disdain, which no one can deny forms the foundation for one of the great rivalries in sports.

However, because in-state rivalries come neatly packaged, E.S.P.N. gives in to the temptation to categorize the South's great rivalries as Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Florida State, and Georgia-Georgia Tech. While I take nothing away from those rivalries, the focus on in-state showdowns tends to ignore the importance of other, equally significant series.

The frustration Nestor feels when E.S.P.N. slights U.C.L.A.-U.S.C. mirrors the aggravation I experience when the boys from Bristol fail to give Georgia-Auburn its due. The Bulldogs and the Tigers compete in the Deep South's oldest rivalry. The 'Dawgs and the Plainsmen have faced off 109 times, yet the all-time series scoring is separated by a safety: Auburn has scored 1,650 points against Georgia and Georgia has scored 1,648 points against Auburn. (Eight of the last 14 meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less.)

The series dates back to 1892 and, since 1898, it literally has taken a World War to prevent these old foes from meeting. (By contrast, the Alabama-Auburn series was suspended for more than 40 consecutive years and it did not resume until after the Second World War.) Historically, Auburn is Georgia's traditional season-ending rival, as the Tigers were the final opponent on the Red and Black's slate 18 times in 23 years between 1892 and 1914. (It was not until 1927 that the Yellow Jackets were the final opponent on the Bulldogs' regular season schedule for the first time.)

I hate Auburn.

In short, I don't believe there is a better rivalry in college football than Georgia-Auburn, but, because one of the teams is required to cross a state line to get to the game and the contest doesn't take place on what E.S.P.N. has designated as a "rivalry weekend," it doesn't get adequate air time. While I am able to empathize with Nestor, though, the fact that my alma mater encounters precisely the same difficulty as his demonstrates that a bias against a particular region is not the source of the problem.

For whatever it might be worth, by the way, the E.S.P.N. College Football Encyclopedia lists Notre Dame and U.C.L.A. as the Trojans' two major rivals, identifies U.S.C. as the Bruins' most hated opponent, and credits Cal with having as its most prominent foe the other competitor in the Big Game, Stanford.

If East Coast bias and ignorance of Pac-10 tradition aren't the causes of E.S.P.N.'s concentration on Southern California's upcoming showdown with the Golden Bears, what is? I believe L.D. answered this question when he identified the running theme of the "sportstainment" industry: The Narrative.

Right now, Cal-U.S.C. makes good copy . . . or, at least, the powers that be at E.S.P.N. have decided it does. The Golden Bears were the last Pac-10 team to beat the Trojans. Both teams are ranked highly and expected to contend for conference, and perhaps national, honors. Pete Carroll and Jeff Tedford are high-profile coaches whose areas of expertise are on opposite sides of the ball, setting up an easy storyline pitting Coach Tedford's high-flying offense against Coach Carroll's hard-hitting defense.

Nestor is right that U.C.L.A. is a bigger Trojan rival than Cal, but the Bruins have lost seven straight to U.S.C., by margins such as 27-0 in 2001, 52-21 in 2002, 47-22 in 2003, and 66-19 in 2005. Meanwhile, the Bears have hung with the men of Troy, falling by narrow margins (30-28 in 2002 and 23-17 in 2004) while upsetting the eventual national champion, 34-31, in 2003.

Is it fair to the ursine squad from the Los Angeles campus of the University of California for the mainstream media to focus exclusively on the corresponding unit from the institution's Berkeley campus? No, but the storyline is an obvious and easy one tailor-made for preseason hype, so it is understandable even if it isn't excusable.

 

Better rivalry? Probably not. Better matchup? Arguably so.

Nestor and I agree that the Worldwide Leader's jaundiced laziness is to blame, but we differ over the root cause of the problem. Nestor argues, with ample evidence, that a lack of Pac-10 representation among the opinion makers in Bristol accounts for the problem. He writes (with a slight adult language edge):

As Kyle points out above ESPN is driven by the profit. Yes it's the corporate whores in Disney who are making all the calls in terms of which teams to hype, whom to promote, when it comes to promoting their programs, matchups etc. However, while they are doing that, I'd submit the coverage of ESPN is also being affected by the inherent bias because of the natural allegiances of their prominent opinion makers in their networks, who are overwhelmingly represented by all the power conferences except for the Pac-10.

While the West Coast league is not utterly lacking in commentators whose formative college football experiences occurred within sight of the Pacific Ocean---Rod Gilmore is one example---the underrepresentation of Pac-10 schools at E.S.P.N. headquarters is undeniable.

What are we to make of this fact, though? Nestor demonstrates that the Worldwide Leader's basketball coverage is almost completely in the hands of A.C.C. and Big East partisans, which causes the network's coverage to concentrate disproportionately on those two leagues and on specific schools, particularly Duke. Undoubtedly, this works to the detriment of basketball programs such as U.C.L.A.'s . . . but the likes of Florida, Kentucky, and Texas are slighted, as well. Preconceived notions are getting in the way, but such bias as there is does not operate exclusively, or even primarily, against the West Coast.

Furthermore, I question the extent to which E.S.P.N.'s on-air personalities are true to their schools. Stuart Scott went to U.N.C., but his predispositions seem to be towards athletes with whom he has personal relationships, not towards the A.C.C. John Saunders works in New York City, but what sort of northeastern tint does that put on his college football coverage? Saunders doesn't seem to me to be shilling for Rutgers or Syracuse. Ron Franklin may be the network's "voice of the S.E.C.," but all he does is cover Southeastern Conference games, not influence E.S.P.N.'s decisionmaking.

First-class sportscaster, si; Bristol power broker, no!

Michael Irvin's N.F.L. coverage is heavily weighted in favor of the Dallas Cowboys, but can we really accuse him of having an A.C.C. bias . . . especially since the Hurricanes didn't play in their current conference when Irvin was at Miami? The same goes for Steve Young, who attended B.Y.U. while the Cougars were playing in the W.A.C. Can we honestly claim that Young shows a bias in favor of current N.F.L. players who went to present Mountain West schools?

What about commentators with mixed motives? Lee Corso attended Florida State, was an assistant coach at Maryland, and was the head coach at Louisville and Indiana. That gives him ties to the A.C.C., the Big East, and the Big Ten . . . although the Seminoles were independent and the Cardinals played in the Missouri Valley Conference during the period in which he was affiliated with those programs. Which influence affects Coach Corso most heavily? Does it matter that, despite his A.C.C. and Big East ties, he called the Florida Gators---not F.S.U. or Miami---the best team in the Sunshine State on Saturday morning's college football preview show?

John Cooper has done analysis for E.S.P.N.'s college football coverage. Is he a Pac-10 guy or a Big Ten guy? (He coached both at Arizona State and at Ohio State.) John Mackovic used to be a commentator for the Worldwide Leader. Was he an A.C.C. guy, a Big Ten guy, or a Big 12 guy? (He coached at Wake Forest, at Illinois, and at Texas . . . then he left Bristol to coach at Arizona. While he was at E.S.P.N., was Coach Mackovic biased against the very same Pac-10 in which he would take his next job?)

Jim Donnan also works for E.S.P.N. He went to school at N.C. State, was an assistant coach at Florida State and Kansas State, served as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, and became the head coach at Marshall and Georgia. Coach Donnan has ties to a myriad of programs and conferences, which gives him multiple, and mixed, motivations. Is he pro-S.E.C. because he coached in Athens or is he anti-S.E.C. because he was fired? Is he pro-Georgia Tech because he has ties to the A.C.C. or is he anti-Georgia Tech because the Yellow Jackets cost him his job?

I find it hard to believe that anyone this surly is biased in favor of anything.

The point is that it is not as simple as saying, "This guy played or coached at this school, so his biases are all in favor of this school and its conference." (Georgia's biggest booster at E.S.P.N. was Trev Alberts, a Nebraska alum.) A particular commentator might be motivated by conference pride or might be motivated by hatred of rival teams . . . or both. (Conference pride tends to cause me to root for Alabama and Tennessee in out-of-conference games, but hatred of rival teams tends to cause me to root against Auburn and Florida when they are facing non-league competition.)

Sure, these guys show some fidelity to past associations. Lou Holtz's predisposition towards the schools at which he used to coach and Kirk Herbstreit's loyalty to his alma mater, Ohio State, are obvious and irrefutable. (Inclinations can be overcome by incompetence, of course. Coach Holtz spent the last six years of his career on the sidelines at South Carolina, yet, despite spending all that time in S.E.C. country, he referred to the school on the Plains as "the University of Auburn" in Saturday morning's college football telecast.)

However, regional pride isn't always synonymous with regional bias. I am a proud Southerner and an S.E.C. homer, but my preseason BlogPoll ballot included five Pac-10 teams and two Mountain West squads in my top 25.

Nestor offers a valid criticism of E.S.P.N. and his meticulous breakdown of the Worldwide Leader's on-air talent underscores his point. What he illuminates, however, is not an East Coast bias, as the biases he identifies are not concentrated, they are diffuse . . . both among commentators and, in some cases, even within commentators. Just as E.S.P.N. must be faulted for oversimplifying the sport, so too must believers in the East Coast bias be criticized for failing to appreciate adequately the complex mix of attributes that defines any individual's opinions.

Instead, the driving force behind the problem at hand is "The Narrative," which, as we shall see in my next installment, trumps all else.

To be continued. . . .

Go 'Dawgs!

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