The initial College Football Playoff rankings came out on Tuesday and, to no one’s surprise, three of the top four spots in the poll belong to teams from the Southeastern Athletic Conference (SEC). Mississippi State, Auburn and Mississippi occupy spots No. 1, 3 and 4, and Florida State, from the Atlantic Coast Conference is No. 2. This is significant because the top four teams in the rankings will go into the first ever four-team playoff to determine the National Champion in college football this year. The rankings will certainly change in the weeks leading up to the final poll on Dec. 7, but being rated high in the poll undoubtedly will give those teams the best chance to be one of the four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff at the end of the season.
The Announcement of the rankings was, of course, met with the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by anyone whose team was rated below the front four. The cry most widely heard is the claim of an “SEC bias” throughout the national media, and aimed most directly at ESPN. An especially well-written and researched article in Rolling Stone by Jordan Burchette, points out that much of the College Football Playoff rankings are based on Top-25 ratings by the Associated Press and the Coaches Polls, and much of the hype for those polls is generated by ESPN, currently one of the biggest media outlets in the world where NCAA football is concerned. Throw in the fact that ESPN owns the SEC Network, and it does not take much creativity to complete the circle and understand why the accusations of bias exist.
The idea of an “SEC bias” is being met, of course, with indignation and denial from ESPN personalities—and for good reason. Most of the ESPN talent consider themselves professional journalists. For the most part, they are. The roots of doubt grow at the corporate level.
Whether there is, in reality, any kind of bias toward the SEC by ESPN will never be substantiated. Opinions will be batted back and forth, undoubtedly, until the year when there are no SEC teams in college football’s final four. The problem for ESPN is simply in the perception of bias, and they have no one to blame but themselves. Perceptions changed the day it was announced that ESPN would partner with the SEC to bring the SEC channel into their family of networks. Why did no one cry “foul” at that time?
ESPN has always been the watchdog for any kind of shenanigans in sport. With award-winning programs like Between the Lines, The Sports Reporters and E:60, ESPN has positioned themselves as a hard-hitting, non-biased “don’t-let-the-man-keep-you-down” outlet—always uncovering improprieties and shady dealings no matter whose toes they stepped on. If there were wrongdoings, ESPN was there to reveal and examine them.
Now ESPN is in cahoots with the SEC and (surprise!) the SEC has not only placed three teams in the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings, but have five of the first 11. With ESPN owning the exclusive rights to telecast the tournament, having an SEC-heavy playoff in college football just makes business sense to the media giant. What does it do, however, to their credibility? Now that ESPN is in bed with the SEC, what happens when there are accusations of recruiting violations at Auburn or Alabama? What will America find out when a Florida player is arrested for a hit-and-run? Will those indiscretions get a 15-minute segment from Bob Lee or simply a mention at the end of a late-night SportsCenter? The viewers would like to believe they are getting the entire story but, because of ESPN’s ties to the conference, they can never be sure.
This is not an accusation of bias or wrongdoing at ESPN. Their ties to the SEC, however, create–in the mind of the viewer–the possibility of bias or wrongdoing. ESPN is a news outlet, and news outlets must always, at least, make an effort to appear neutral. The simple act of owning a network dedicated to, and dependent on, the promotion of any specific team or league demonstrates a blatant disregard for that effort on the part of ESPN.