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The East Coast Bias (Part III): The Triumph of The Narrative

A compelling case for the existence of an East Coast bias has been set forth by Nestor at Bruins Nation. His excellent essay deserves serious consideration, which I have tried to provide in my previous installments. Since Nestor's and my positions appear to be converging upon a happy medium, I now turn to what I believe to be the crux of the issue, which I shall attempt to get at through a fictional illustration.

(Photograph from The Purdue Exponent.)

What follows is not a transcript of E.S.P.N.'s "College GameDay" telecast from the morning of Saturday, October 29, 2005:

Chris Fowler: Welcome back to "College GameDay." All right, we've looked at this afternoon's matchups; now it's time to take a step back and consider the big picture. The national championship race is as wide open as it's been in a long, long time. Let's assume that the teams that are winning keep on winning. Guys, who belongs in the Rose Bowl on January 4? Lee, you first.

Lee Corso: I don't know who disturbs---deserves to go lose the national championship gang---game; I'll leave that to the experts. But I know who's entire---entitled to go win the national championship game, and that's Virginia Tech. Ol' Frank Beamer has Marcus Vick and the Hokies sitting pretty at 8-0, with Miami coming to Blacksburg next Saturday night. If Virginia Tank---Tech wins that game, watch out! The ol' Hokies'll be going to Pasadena! I've got some stats here that'll knob---knock your socks off! Listen to this! The Hokies are giving up just over nine points per game on decrease---defense! Yo! Nobody's scarring---scoring on these guys! I know my friend Kirk Herbstreit over here is going to disagree with mink---me on this one, so let me give him a premeditated---pre-emptive, "Not so fast, my friend!"

Fowler: Kirk, how 'bout it?

Kirk Herbstreit: I like Virginia Tech, I respect what Frank Beamer has done with that program, but the best team in the country right now is Penn State. Coming off of back-to-back losing seasons, Joe Paterno has the Nittany Lions playing lights-out football. They're sitting at 7-1 with a win over a very impressive Ohio State team and, if they win out, Chris, JoePa and Penn State deserve to go to the national championship game.

Fowler: With one loss? Ahead of several unbeatens? Really?

Herbstreit: Absolutely, Chris! Their one loss was to Michigan on the road . . . in the Big Ten! Lloyd Carr whined his way into getting a couple of extra seconds put back on the clock and, if it weren't for that, JoePa and his Nittany Lions would be undefeated. Undefeated! Are you going to sit there, Chris, and are you going to sit there, Lee, and tell me Joe Paterno deserves to get hosed out of a shot at a national title again? After what's happened to Penn State already? Undefeated in 1969 . . . finished No. 2, behind Texas. Undefeated in 1973 . . . finished No. 5, behind an Alabama team with a loss. Undefeated in 1994 . . . finished No. 2, behind Nebraska. Now should have been undefeated and cheated out of a shot at the No. 1 ranking again? Are you kidding me? College football cannot let that happen to Penn State, the Big Ten Conference, and Joe Paterno. No way.

Fowler: All right, that's what Lee and Kirk think . . . now let's send it back to the studio, where Rece Davis is sitting with our good friends, Lou Holtz and Mark May. Let's see what they have to say about this. Rece?

Rece Davis: Thanks, Chris. All right, fellows, let's get right to it. Lee says Virginia Tech . . . Kirk says Penn State . . . now we want to know what you say. Mark? If the situation remains unchanged, who deserves to go to that national championship game as the No. 1 team in the nation?

Mark May: Well, Rece, that team is West Virginia. The West Virginia Mountaineers are 6-1, their only loss was to Virginia Tech, and they're coming off of a huge overtime win over Louisville two weeks ago that virtually gave West Virginia the Big East title. Reports of the Big East's demise have been greatly exaggerated, Rece, and, when the Mountaineers beat the preseason favorites in the conference, they put themselves in a position to make a real run at this thing . . . the national championship, I mean. Rich Rodriguez has the running game going with that spread option offense and they're ripping off huge chunks of yardage, thanks to their offensive line play, and I like this team to finish the regular season 10-1, win the Big East championship, and take a cross-country trip to play for the national title in the Rose Bowl.

Davis: What do you think, Lou? Is he right?

Lou Holtz: Well, Rece, Mark makes an excellent point and I respect that, but here's why he's wrong. Kirk talked about Joe Paterno getting cheated when Lloyd Carr got those two seconds put back on the clock. Joe Paterno's a friend of mine. So's Lloyd Carr. But all Penn State has to do in that situation is play defense for another two seconds. It's two seconds! What about losing the biggest game of the year when you've got the game won and the game-winning touchdown is scored at the last second because somebody in the offensive backfield didn't know the rule book and the officials didn't bother to call it?

Davis: You're talking about the so-called "Bush push"?

Holtz: I'm talking about the Bush push. Listen, I love Reggie Bush. He's an outstanding young man and he's an exciting player to watch. He deserves to win the Heisman Trophy. But he pushed Matt Leinart into the end zone. The touchdown shouldn't have counted and Notre Dame should be 6-1 instead of 5-2.

May: You're saying Notre Dame should be in the national championship game with two losses?

Holtz: Two losses . . . two losses that should've been one loss and a win!

May: True or false: the Fighting Irish have two losses.

Holtz: True or false . . . they shouldn't have any losses except one. The touchdown shouldn't have counted!

May: Agreed, but it did! It did count! Notre Dame has two losses!

Holtz: Even so, they're Notre Dame! Two losses when they should only have one loss ought to get Notre Dame into the national championship game, in my opinion.

May: So a team with two losses . . .

Holtz: In my opinion! I said in my opinion!

Davis: What I want to know is, where's the love for Alabama and Georgia? The Tide flattened Florida in Tuscaloosa a month ago and, even without Tyrone Prothro, they won defensive struggles against Ole Miss and Tennessee the last two weeks. They're 7-0. So are the 'Dawgs, who have that big Cocktail Party game against the Gators this afternoon. If either one of these two teams runs the table, I'm sorry, but you have to punch their ticket to Pasadena! Chris, what do you think, buddy?

Fowler: I'm staying out of this, but I can't believe nobody's talking about Texas. After two straight years of a team from the Big 12 making it into the national championship game, I think you have to put the Longhorns ahead of all of the teams that have been mentioned if they make it through that conference unscathed. All right, that's enough of that. Now let's turn to our 12:00 matchup on E.S.P.N.2. It's high noon in the Big Ten between two teams fighting for bragging rights, respectability, and possibly bowl eligibility. . . .

Is that how that telecast went?

If Nestor is right, isn't that how that telecast should have gone? Lee Corso went to Florida State, so he should support the A.C.C. champion. Kirk Herbstreit went to Ohio State, so he should support the Big Ten champion. Mark May went to Pitt, so he should support the Big East champion. Lou Holtz coached at Notre Dame, so he should support the nation's leading independent. Rece Davis went to Alabama, so he should support the S.E.C. champion. Chris Fowler went to Colorado, so he should support the Big 12 champion.

Based upon Nestor's assessment of the biases of the powers that be at E.S.P.N., those are the teams the talking heads should have been talking up on "College GameDay" and, in the absence of an influential Pac-10 representative, the case for Southern California should have gone unspoken.

Surely someone at E.S.P.N. is willing to show some love for U.S.C.!

That, however, isn't how it happened. By that point, the Trojans were 7-0 and the Worldwide Leader in Sports was hyping Pete Carroll's squad as "The Greatest Team of All Time." While it is true that Lou Holtz was shilling for Notre Dame and Kirk Herbstreit was bragging on Ohio State and Mark May was giving all the credit to the various teams' offensive lines, the company line had been set and no one deviated from it: U.S.C. was one of college football's great squads. It almost went without saying that the Trojans would win the national championship; by late October, they were playing for their place in history.

Nestor had this to say:

As mentioned elsewhere during my discussions with Kyle, Pac-10 management has itself to blame for getting into less than favorable contractual arrangements with the Fox Sports Network, who doesn't do a great job of promoting the conference. However, that doesn't mean ESPN cannot make any effort to display some sort of fairness when setting up their narrative in the world of college football/hoops.

I concede this point, but I agree with what L.D. had to say about The Narrative in one of the intercollegiate athletics blogosphere's most important and influential postings. Quoth L.D.:
[There] is a wider, deeper problem with mass media journalism, and isn't specifically an ESPN problem. That problem is with "the narrative," which has become the way all news coverage seems to work these days.

In mass media journalism, there is a greater reliance on profit than in the past. And when profit matters more, the corporate heads want to ensure that the journalists stay within bounds - whatever stories are covered need to be more predictable, so the accountants and such know what they can expect. Things are planned out in advance. Storylines are decided upon weeks ahead of time. It's a matter of certainty.

And in the college football journalism world, certainty matters too. As early as the Spring, storylines are developed and plans are set in motion. Gameday knew probably back in January that the Ohio State-Texas game would be a huge matchup, so ESPN started hyping it a month ahead of time. ESPN decided USC would be a big story, so they've had Shelley Smith preparing in depth stories for months.

The key is that they decide upon the story ahead of time, so when something comes up that doesn't fit the parameters of that story, they don't know what to do.

Simply stated, The Narrative trumps all. For the last three years, E.S.P.N.'s No. 1 storyline has been Southern California. There is a distinct bias in favor of preserving the predetermined storyline---hence, the emphasis on the "rivalry" between the Golden Bears and the Trojans, much to Nestor's irritation---but there can be no bias against the West Coast where the region's top team is at the center of the spotlight.

E.S.P.N. has team biases; we see them in Lou Holtz's paeans to Notre Dame and in the Worldwide Leader's touting of the Trojans.

E.S.P.N. has matchup biases; we see them in the network's shameless promotion of contests to which they own the broadcast rights and in its emphasis of California's game against U.S.C. at the expense of U.C.L.A.'s.

E.S.P.N. has coaching biases; we see them in Bristol's long-running love affair with Steve Spurrier. The Evil Genius's brand of football and his postgame press conferences are entertaining, so they are perfectly tailored to Disney's notion of transforming E.S.P.N.'s coverage of intercollegiate athletics into "sportstainment."

He may have gone 20-26 in his last 46 games as a head coach, but, man, is he ever quotable!

Accordingly, for the second year in a row, South Carolina will open its season on Thursday night in a nationally-televised game broadcast on the Worldwide Leader in Sports. That's not a pro-S.E.C. bias---as an alumnus of the university whose football team is the second opponent on the Gamecocks' schedule, I am no fan of giving the Palmetto State Poultry an extra two days to prepare for my alma mater---it's loyalty to The Narrative.

Darth Visor provides quotations that make good copy and his offensive play-calling is telegenic, so E.S.P.N. does everything it can to boost his profile, promoting the idea that Steve Superior performed a coaching miracle when he took over a team that went 6-5 in 2004 and led it all the way to a 7-5 record in 2005.

As anyone who has read the Vanderbilt Agrarians' I'll Take My Stand or Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat knows, the profit motive serves, for good or ill, as a solvent of regional and cultural differences. (We saw this in the financial motivations behind the Confederate flag controversy in South Carolina.) A sportstainment monolith like E.S.P.N. has neither the time nor the inclination for anything as mundane and antediluvian as regional prejudice; bothering to care about such things merely distracts the Bristol-based behemoth from the pursuit of lucre.

This is a hard fact for people like Nestor and me to understand, much less accept. I bleed red and black and Nestor bleeds blue and gold. No amount of money or prestige could entice either of us to shift allegiances to our arch-rival; each of us has a myriad of biases, some noble, some not, but neither of us would ever betray the commitment to be true to our respective schools.

That isn't how it works at E.S.P.N. Nestor faults Chris Fowler for using his influential position to promote his personal loyalties. I fault him for exactly the opposite reason: I don't think Chris Fowler cares one whit for his alma mater or much of anything else. Like Abe Vigoda's decision to betray Al Pacino in "The Godfather," it's just business.

"I always thought it would be Corso." "No. It's the smart move and Fowler was always smarter."

Nebraska is good? Fine; elevate the Big Red Machine to the forefront, ask openly whether the school's 1995 squad might be "The Greatest Team of All Time," then, when the story grows stale and such incidents off the field as those involving Lawrence Phillips become too embarrassing, bail on the team and leave its desiccated husk (sorry) behind.

Now Miami is good again? Fine; elevate the Hurricanes to the forefront and put them through the same paces until they lose a game they're expected to win, then drop them like a hot rock and move on to U.S.C. Pete Carroll has the Trojans playing well again? Fine; elevate Southern California to the forefront, ask openly whether the school's 2005 squad might be "The Greatest Team of All Time," then, when the story grows stale and the incidents off the field become too embarrassing, bail on the team and move on to the next big story.

We've seen it again and again, from Oklahoma in the mid-'80s to Miami in the late '80s to Florida State in the early '90s to the examples cited above. The Big 12 gets its turn. The Sunshine State gets its turn. The West Coast gets its turn some years (U.S.C. the last three years; Oregon State in 2000; U.C.L.A. in 1998, but for the hurricane game) and not in others (Washington in 1991; Oregon in 2001; Cal in 2004).

You don't hear me griping about an anti-S.E.C. bias, although a case certainly could be made for one. Alabama got no respect in 1992 until the Tide beat favored Miami in the Sugar Bowl. E.S.P.N. promoted Michigan's Charles Woodson for the Heisman Trophy over Tennessee's Peyton Manning. E.S.P.N. stated Southern California's case for the No. 1 ranking in the sportswriters' poll after L.S.U. made it into the Sugar Bowl. Auburn went undefeated twice in a 12-year-span yet never got close to a national title. In 1998, once-beaten Florida State was favored over unbeaten Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl. Georgia made it to 8-0 in 2002 yet never rose above No. 5 in the rankings. The one shameless Bulldog booster in Bristol, Trev Alberts, was fired at the network's earliest opportunity.

E.S.P.N. robbed L.S.U. of the national title . . . well, unless you count the fact that L.S.U. won the national title.

There's a legitimate argument to be made that E.S.P.N. has an anti-S.E.C. bias . . . only I don't believe that. I believe the Worldwide Leader's programming decisions are financial decisions and I agree with L.D. that the predetermined storylines are designed to maximize viewer interest. No one in Bristol is out to get the Southeastern Conference. They don't care, one way or the other; they just want to increase ratings.

Bias is a human thing, exhibited by those governed at least partly by such base things as hatreds and by such noble things as loyalties. My college football allegiances are accompanied by biases, as are Nestor's. The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network---note well which goal is given pride of place; it is telling that the cable network of which we speak is not known as "S.E.P.N."---has no such baggage, for it is without emotion and it has no soul.

If declaring a particular Saturday "rivalry weekend" boosts ratings, then Cal-U.S.C. will be touted as a rivalry. If airing a particular conference's games is more lucrative, E.S.P.N. will buy the league's broadcast rights without regard to the teams or regions involved, as long as the demographics are right. If viewership can be maximized by airing games played at times when everyone in the country is awake, those games will be promoted. If building a West Coast studio next to the Staples Center will increase profits, the Worldwide Leader will green-light the construction project.

Pac-10 fans don't need to worry about how many alumni of the conference's member institutions are on the E.S.P.N. payroll. Pac-10 fans don't even need to worry about their teams beating teams from other B.C.S. conferences (which Pac-10 teams are doing already).

Pac-10 fans need to worry about being viewed as an income-generating demographic that E.S.P.N. would find it lucrative to please. With so many high-quality academic institutions in the league, Pac-10 schools certainly have large numbers of alumni with substantial amounts of disposable income, so the cash is there. The Worldwide Leader's love affair with Hollywood-produced Southern California demonstrates the lengths to which E.S.P.N. will go to promote Pac-10 teams if the price is right.

There is no East Coast bias. E.S.P.N. is not out to get the conference whose champion has been the central focus of Bristol's programming and promotions decisions for the last three years. There's a bias for more money and a bias against less money. There's a bias for higher ratings and a bias against lower ratings.

Do they have these on the West Coast? They do? Then there is no East Coast bias.

On the field, the Pac-10 is as good as any major conference in college football. In the stands, though, the league is lacking, as its attendance figures simply do not match those of the S.E.C. In 2005, Pac-10 stadiums were filled to 84.87 per cent capacity. That gave the league the lowest attendance figure of any B.C.S. conference except the Big East . . . and this was in the year that marked record-setting overall and average attendance in the Pac-10. (No S.E.C. team's average was below the 86.6 per cent registered by Mississippi State. Vanderbilt averaged 90.6 per cent capacity in 2005. Meanwhile, Stanford spent $90 million in the offseason to reduce its stadium capacity from 85,000 to 50,000.)

Show up on Saturdays. Boost ratings by watching televised Pac-10 games. Buy more merchandise. When your team goes to three straight bowl games with a shot at the national championship, cheer for your team.

It's not a bias based on geography. It's a bias based on apathy. Fortunately, Pac-10 weblogs like Bruins Nation, Conquest Chronicles, U-Dub Dish, and Building the Dam are working to fire up fan bases and combat Pacific indifference. If you are reading the fine work of these authors (and of other Western webloggers like Block U and Provo Pride), leaving thoughtful and impassioned comments and diaries at their sites, and attending Pac-10 and Mountain West games, the West Coast needs more fans like you.

A lack of representation in Bristol isn't the problem. A lack of representation in the stadium seats on Saturday afternoons is. To characterize this phenomenon as an "East Coast bias," while not unreasonable, nevertheless misses the point; it is equivalent to describing American politics as skewed by a "senior citizen bias."

Nationally, our presidential campaigns and Congressional debates expend enormous amounts of time, money, and energy on issues such as Medicare, Social Security, and prescription drug benefits. While, obviously, these issues are important, they receive a disproportionate share of our leaders' attention when compared to many other pressing questions.

Why are our politics so focused on issues of greater concern to the elderly than to the young? The answer is simple and not at all sinister: older people vote in greater numbers than young people. If citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 cast a larger number of ballots than citizens over the age of 65, issues of concern to the young would define the debate.

We know this because the 18-to-24-year-old demographic, which spends its disposable income on consumer goods, determines the success or failure of commercial television programs, motion pictures, and popular music. That group could strongly influence the course of our governance, as political activists of that age did in the late 1960s, but the lack of public participation by young Americans blunts their effectiveness at setting public policy. Young people spend more money, so advertising is aimed at persuading the young; old people vote more often, so policies are set to please the elderly.

I'm not suggesting that Pac-10 fans literally camp out in Bristol and burn copies of E.S.P.N.: The Magazine, but, metaphorically, it's not a bad model to follow.

The West Coast, the youngest region of the United States, is, in many ways, the 18-to-24-year-old demographic of sports. The muscle is there and, where the region flexes its muscles, E.S.P.N. responds. Where success on the field provides marketing opportunities---as with the U.S.C. Trojans from 2002 through 2005 and perhaps again in 2006 or with the Utah Utes in 2004 and perhaps again this year---the Worldwide Leader is perfectly willing to give the region its due.

However, Pac-10 fans too often do on Saturday what young Americans do on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November . . . stay home and allow their equals to be treated as their superiors by virtue of their own failure to participate on a level commensurate with their potential. The appearance of an East Coast bias arises not from too great a presence of conference pride in Bristol, but from too little proof of conference pride in places like Berkeley, Eugene, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

The Pac-10 is a solid conference with a long history and a proud tradition that plays quality football. Such a league deserves more fans with Nestor's passion and devotion. The conference deserves a fan base worthy of its strong legacy. When more fans of Nestor's caliber crawl out of the woodwork in Westwood and make their presence felt where the rubber meets the road . . . in Nielsen ratings, in stadium seats on Saturday afternoons, and in apparel and memorabilia purchases . . . then, and only then, the Pac-10 will be given its due.

Until Pac-10 fans show the level of appreciation for their league that the conference has earned, E.S.P.N. will show the Pac-10 as little respect as many of its boosters seem to do. It's not the East Coast's lack of appreciation for the quality of Pac-10 football that keeps the league down; it's the West Coast's acceptance of that sentiment that lets the Worldwide Leader in Sports know that it may ignore that corner of the world with impunity.

Go 'Dawgs!