Tuesday, June 24, 2008

College Football Book Archive: Volume One, Third Installment

Chapters 5 and 6 of "The National Media and College Football"

Chapter Five: Real Media Power, and Who Has It (If Anyone)

College football fans--in Hawkeye Nation, Gator Nation, Sooner Nation, Troy, or any other nation--simply need to realize that national college football writers care about the welfare of the sport, and would therefore die to be able to work in an industry that could reform itself so as to reduce opinion giving within the world of college football journalism.

College football writers are fans, too, in our off-duty moments--why would any of us cover the sport if we didn’t enjoy it? Because we’re passionate about a sport that captured our imagination since childhood, we want to see it thrive, and a utopian vision of college football would certainly involve more debate-deciding big games between the top teams, both during and after the regular season, and especially in January. Regardless of systemic preferences (a fair amount of writers surely don’t favor a playoff; I don’t want to suggest that the media has a monolithic voice, or that it should), any college football journalist, on a primal human level if not on a professional level, wants to see all the really big games play out in reality. I’m sure that anti-playoff journalists, while opposing a playoff for principled, far-ranging and well-developed reasons, would still--as persons, as fans--want to see Utah play both Louisville and Auburn, and for Auburn to play USC. This brings up a simple but vital point about the inner workings of journalism: the truly powerful people in journalism--be it sports or entertainment or hard news or any other dimension of the profession--are the owners and publishers. The people who set the editorial vision; who own the newspapers, websites and broadcast outlets; who assemble their staffs; and who shape the TV deals that fuel the industry--they are the ones in control.

Yes, there are a few journalists who rise to such heights that their heft and leverage become truly and legitimately powerful in their spheres of work, but those exceptions prove the rule. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite were rarities in broadcast journalism, as was Grantland Rice in college football’s earlier years. Those men were journalists who dominated their professions to the extent that the world, to a significant degree, reacted in response to what they did. Today, college football has no such journalists of that sort. The closest thing to Granny Rice today would be found in the three folks on College Gameday, given the exposure and publicity they enjoy on a weekly basis. If anyone who loves college football is not watching an actual game on Saturday, chances are they’re watching the Gameday boys, or perhaps Rece Davis, Trev Alberts and Mark May. But mere exposure should not be confused with supreme power.

Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit spent much of 2004 bemoaning the BCS for yet another season. That point cannot be denied, and it can’t be overlooked or glossed over. True, Corso and Herbstreit (but not Fowler) did paper over the system’s flaws after the SEC Championship Game, when--in a rush to satisfy ABC, their ultimate corporate master and the broadcaster of the Orange Bowl--they already began to talk up the USC-Oklahoma matchup. But when you get beyond that journalistic misstep, a quick and easy look at the bigger picture puts this whole issue of media power in proper perspective.

The Gameday crew’s disgust with the BCS throughout 2004 and, in fact, each college football season is a clear indication of their desire to want championships decided on the field--certainly as human beings and football fans if not as journalists (though I don’t think it’s a big logical leap to conclude that the Gameday boys, as journalists, are also in favor of some kind of playoff or bowl-plus-one system). Therefore, if Chris, Lee and Kirk had real media power of the highest order, they would be able to pull the levers that would bring about a new and different system. But of course, they don’t. The real power in college football resides with the conference commissioners and university presidents who preside over the BCS. Big XII boss Kevin Weiberg, the rotating chairman of the BCS, has been the public face of college football’s government over the past month, and he’s said, flatly and authoritatively, that a playoff simply won’t happen. The power resides with him, the Big East’s Mike Tranghese, the ACC’s John Swofford, and the other chieftains of the sport who conduct the high-level dialogues with university presidents who--in their own right--are invested, financially and otherwise, in opposing a playoff.

To even pretend that the Gameday crew has real power, or that the publishers of college football websites or offseason annuals have genuine pull in the sport (the way publishers of big city newspapers have control over politics in their areas), is laughable enough in its own right. To then think that sportswriters, the people at the bottom of the journalistic-industrial food chain, have any power whatsoever is an even more hilarious idea. At the end of the day, national college football writers like me will rip the BCS to no end, but then--without any real power to change things--shrug our shoulders, make predictions when our editors and publishers ask us to (and we’ll obediently comply... unless we want to get fired from a job that, while low-paying, is still a dream for just about any price), and go about doing our job within the incredibly limited journalistic context that is forced upon us.

Hopefully, understanding the limitations of national college football journalists--their minds, their level of power, and their ability to report on real games instead of hypothetical matchups--will enable college football fans to realize what journalists are up against. If we journalists give opinions, it’s only because of the industry in which we work. If we’re wrong, it’s only because it’s unavoidable. If we speculate, it’s only because we’re not given enough debate-deciding games or compilations of objective evidence with which to make finite conclusions. Believe me: we’d like to see--and report on--more games. But we’re not calling the shots here... not even close. Wanting to cover more games--such as USC versus Auburn--is just about the only real bias most national college football writers truly have.

Chapter Six: The Two Kinds of Analysis--Recommendation-Based and Predictive

Another overarching problem that writers and fans experience in their relationship with each other is the inability for fans to understand--and writers to convey--the difference between straight reportage and news analysis. The inability to distinguish between reportage and analysis is what creates so many conflicts--individually and institutionally--between fans and sportswriters, between readers and the media.

Straight reportage is what you see in the Associated Press, basically. There are light touches of literary color, but for the most part, AP stories have a simple, cookie-cutter format: who, what, when, where, and why, all in a concise, no-frills manner. Straight reportage tells you the simplest, safest facts of the game without any editorializing. Players and coaches are quoted in a tight, bare-bones story that is written without any individual voice and is meant to generate no emotional reaction at all.

Analysis, while employing journalistic principles, is not straight reportage. Analysis--such as the “instant analysis” of games right after they end each Autumnal Saturday--involves looking at a game (or issue) and not bothering to report all the exact details of the story; that’s what a“straight report” is supposed to do. Analysis, on the other hand, assumes a reader knows the basic facts and tries to make sense of the event on a larger level. When an “instant analysis” piece is written, I’m assuming that readers know what happened, that they watched the game along with me. Therefore, my job is not to tell the facts, but to explain them in a piece that involves more literary flourishes and captures the drama of the moment as well as its pure football significance. Whereas straight reportage looks only at the event itself, analysis looks at the event and places it in a larger context. Sometimes, the context is immediately connected to the Xs and Os of football; on other occasions, however, the analysis must necessarily deal with the bigger picture, in an attempt to put the game--its significance, meaning and future implications--into perspective for both teams, and perhaps their coaches and star players as well.

Naturally, then, a reader expecting “straight reportage” will then be upset if s/he reads what is truly an analytical piece. Conversely, people expecting analysis will be bored stiff if they read a “straight report” on a game they already saw.

Perhaps the issue that really confuses readers is the fact that analysis has two distinct dimensions that, in the world of college football, are often hard to separate from each other, and which--moreover--are different from the way politics is analyzed.

On one hand, analysis must consider the question of “what will happen?” with respect to a given event. On the other hand, analysis must also consider “what should happen?” as the result of a given event.

What’s confusing is the fact that, in college football, what will happen in the BCS and the polls is often just as unclear, and just as subjective, as the matter of what should happen. When a writer like myself says something like, “USC should not be docked for its performance in the fog at Oregon State,” after the Trojans struggled against the Beavers because of what I considered to be the limitations posed by the weather, many readers looked at that statement as inappropriate editorializing for a game report.

See how confusing this is? First of all, the story was a game analysis piece, not a “straight report.” Secondly, though, that conclusion--which could easily be viewed as one writer’s personal agenda--was nothing more than a product of a careful journalistic evaluation of the environment in Corvallis that night. Based on the conditions--viewed through the lens of both the television camera and the commentary of Fox Sports Net announcers Barry Tompkins and Petros Papadakis--the appropriate verdict, through this one pair of trained journalistic eyes, seemed to warrant--on the merits--a soft judgment or assessment of USC’s performance. My journalistic sense of what should have happened with respect to USC’s poll position is that it should not have been docked. What would happen in those polls the next day? I didn’t know, and therefore couldn’t make any analytical comment on that issue.

In the world of polls, there’s no way to get inside the minds of other college football writers and coaches, so I could only address the “what should happen?” side of the story. I could not answer the question of “what would happen?” after that USC-Oregon State game in Corvallis. Yet, many readers thought that my remarks precisely represented an analysis of “what would happen” in the polls.

Some Auburn and Oklahoma fans--enough for me to notice, at any rate--thought that I was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which my analysis of what "should" happen in the polls dictated to what I thought "would" happen in the polls. In other words, Auburn and OU fans believed that the writers who thought USC "should" stay No. 1--such as myself--were the same writers who thought USC "would" stay No. 1 when the polls were released. By saying that USC should not get docked in the polls, I was supposedly“making news” according to Tiger and Sooner fans. I was, in their eyes, “establishing a personal market-based media agenda” that would be verified the next day, when--in a conspiratorial event--the poll rankings would magically coincide with my personal recommendation as a national college football journalist. Auburn and OU fans thought I was making news, and then shaping the news according to my own biases.

Why does this inability to distinguish between recommendation-based analysis (a personal view of what should happen) and predictive analysis (a personally detatched and more objective assessment of what will happen) persist? Let’s once again deal with journalism as it relates to national electoral politics and other elements of hard or “serious” news.


Whereas college football--like other sports--is still innocent in the sense that it cannot be confused with a life-and-death issue, the realms of politics, diplomacy and legislation--given that they touch on issues such as abortion, the Iraq War, and health insurance coverage--are matters of incredibly substantial importance: to people, nations and the great questions of morality that human beings must always confront. These realities touch upon a larger matter of journalistic ethics and methods that has been addressed in previous chapters.

Simply stated, the importance of national political, military and economic issues demands that the media peel away the layers of spin that shroud such issues, enabling the public to see the facts of these issues for what they are. This dynamic stands in near total contrast to college football journalism, which does cover a business, but merely an entertainment business, something not nearly as important as geopolitical relationships and government policies. The importance of “serious news” in comparison with college football demands that journalists treat these two decidedly different animals with clearly different methods. The fact that college football journalism--though the fault of the BCS system and not the journalists themselves--is a necessarily opinion-heavy industry is precisely what confines college football journalists to a reliance on opinion. Serious news, however, demands a reliance on fact-checking and an unvarnished, unfiltered presentation of bottom-line realities that people need to know when they plan their budget, send their kid to college, seek a doctor, go into the voting booth, and do various other things that affect their lifestyle, overall security, and the future direction of the country.

The problem I face as a college football journalist, then, is a problem that I did not create. Because of the horrible way that journalists cover politics, the military, Congress, and all other dimensions of what is ostensibly supposed to be hard news, I and my other national college football journalists bear the brunt of public anger toward “the media,” an all-encompassing giant that is not viewed contextually within certain fields of expertise.

I can’t blame people for having this view of the profession of journalism, because it’s undeniably true that the profession not only possesses a horrible reputation, but deserves it. When it comes to the most important elements of human life--the issues and questions that determine our health, our economic security, and our relationship with the rest of the world--journalists have unquestionably dropped the ball over the past 30 years. A full examination of these problems, outside of the realm of college football, is another book for another day (and certainly not for publication via CFN’s website!). But a few things must be said about hard-news journalists, in order to compare them to college football journalists while also explaining why the public can’t seem to separate between the two camps, given the sorry state of journalism as a whole.

One particularly central point to be made, then, about hard-news journalists is that they simply don’t cover the stories or issues that matter to people. This cuts in all directions, both in favor of and against all political and ideological persuasions.

Why is this the case? Very simply, the Watergate scandal, which culminated in the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon, ironically represented a death knell for journalism... or at least a period of long and silent hibernation in the profession. At the time of Watergate, the reportage of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post caused journalism’s popularity to skyrocket... at least to the extent that Hollywood superstars Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford made a fine movie about Woodstein’s journalistic adventures. But in the ensuing three decades, it has become painfully apparent that Watergate--by making journalism and journalists so noticeably popular--has created a celebrity culture among journalists, especially those in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. Watergate has fattened the bank accounts of journalists while giving them dramatically increased exposure and visibility. As a result, journalists have become the story or, at the very least, much closer to stories than they should be. The professional distance and objective separation that are supposed to define journalists’ relationships to the issues and people they cover no longer exist. While Watergate was not a sexual scandal, one could legitimately say that the watershed event in American politics and journalism represented a turning point in the coverage of sexual scandals.

Before Watergate, politicians and journalists maintained a healthier separation of on-the-record and off-the-record interactions. Matters of state were treated with the businesslike seriousness they demanded, while sexual episodes were considered part of the private sphere and not worthy of journalistic examination. Lyndon Johnson, the last president before Nixon, had his share of adulterous affairs, but you never heard about them. On the other hand, Jimmy Carter--the first president after Nixon--caused quite a media stir when he merely said that he “had lust in my heart.” After Watergate, sex--as shown in the frenzy over Bill Clinton’s adventures with Monica Lewinsky--became front-page material. It only stood to reason that, in a larger journalistic and political culture where many journalists enjoyed celebrity standing, the trivial issues would become more important while important issues would become more trivial.

This overarching reality coexists with another media dynamic in which powerful and well-moneyed journalists fail to do courageous reporting or ask tough questions precisely because they have real power themselves. If political journalists, editors and publishers were overly critical of politicians and governments, they would lose their leverage and status in Washington; the media establishment that feeds their hand would suddenly become hostile if they, as journalists, suddenly tried to challenge or confront it. Precisely because a lot of power, money and prestige are at stake for high-profile celebrity journalists these days (journalists, it must be said, who work for news outlets that are now expected to make a profit, unlike the days of Murrow and his contemporaries), the majority of journalists--more obsessed with access to power than with raw truth-telling about the powerful--fail to live out their job as watchdogs who will sift through the self-serving spin of Beltway politicians, staffers and think tank directors.

In hard-news journalism, all too many journalists become the stories and serve as the newsmakers themselves. This is precisely what college football journalists are accused of being each Saturday, when they write supposedly biased stories that favor one team or conference over another. But stop yourself for a moment and consider: is there any college football journalist who enjoys power on a level that even remotely begins to approach what Bob Woodward, Wolf Blitzer, Aaron Brown, and a few other mainstream writers and broadcasters enjoy? Grantland Rice used to be the kind of kingmaker in college football that prominent journalists are today in the nation’s capital, but people like Rice no longer exist in college football. No college football journalist pulls the levers or calls the shots on the order of what Rice used to do. The Vanderbilt alum, practically on his own, shaped college football journalism and gave the sport national appeal in an era before America valued a college football playoff over the tradition and pageantry of New Year’s Day bowl games. Today, no college football journalist wields the raw power or insider access that defined Granny Rice’s storied and industry-shaping career.

C’mon, who would it be? Chris Fowler? A respected voice of wisdom, but is the BCS going to be reformed according to his wishes? (Has it been? Clearly not.)

Lee Corso? A longtime coach who makes some credible observations about the game, but who, at the end of the day, butters his bread on the basis of his grandfatherly old-time-ball-coach humor, along with his place as the helmet/logo/mascot-donning guy on the College Gameday set.

Kirk Herbstreit? A sharp-eyed and observant perceiver of the sport of football with sound journalistic instincts, but nothing close to a journalistic heavyweight. His failure to reassert his season-long displeasure with the BCS after the SEC Championship Game, in a clear attempt to quickly sweep the Auburn controversy under the rug and talk up the USC-Oklahoma Orange Bowl, revealed Herbstreit as a man who still needs some polish and, moreover, who exists as one voice within a larger media landscape. Herbstreit showed on the night of Saturday,Dec. 4, 2004, that his journalistic presence does not dominate the world of college football. He doesn’t cast much of a shadow over anyone else in the sport.

And if the College Gameday crew doesn’t make the cut, who would? Keith Jackson, Mister College Football, is an aging man who covers just one conference (the Pac-10) each season to cut down on his travel and keep him close to his wife, Turi Ann. It’s an outrage that what I’m about to say is true, but I regularly do encounter more and more negative criticism of Jackson each season since he stopped covering the sport beyond the Pac-10, after the 1998 campaign. Fans write to me each season to register increasingly alarmed statements about how Keith Jackson is biased against their own team.

But on an even more important level, what is essential to realize about Jackson as a college football power broker is the fact that, for all the many reforms Jackson has advocated in college football over his many years of broadcasting the sport, few have been implemented. Get Jackson in a smoke-filled room, and he’d be sure to roll off an extremely long list of recommended changes to the sport’s governance. The fact that so much of a Keith Jackson remedy for college football remains untried and unaccomplished only proves that he wields little political power the way a connected Washington “uber-journalist” can (by accessing the Oval Office, commanding book deals, hosting Georgetown dinner parties, and generally maintaining a chummy relationship with highly-placed government officials).

When you get down to it, college football journalists, at the very most, interview head coaches, assistant coaches, players and athletic directors. Hard-news journalists interview presidents, congressmen, Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials, agency directors, and other people in places of truly lofty and weighty power and authority. No one in college football journalism has a place of power that can even begin to approximate the heft enjoyed by the best-placed Beltway journalists. This is what enables hard-news journalists--in a celebrity culture where journalism isn’t practiced well--to become the stories themselves. But in college football? Hah! To even consider the notion that any college football journalist is a story unto himself, a newsmaker rather than a news reporter--either through personal ambition or the workings of the profession--is beyond absurd. Hard-news journalists are the culprits here, and there’s a clear historical explanation as to why that’s the case.

In older, better days for political journalism, facts would be reported and wars--such as Vietnam--would not be sanitized on the evening network news. Today, spin is what’s reported on, and wars—Iraq—are in fact sanitized.

By reporting what other people (such as government or military officials) say, journalists maintain cozy relationships with their sources and give the appearance of presenting something important. Yet, they simultaneously avoid the much more difficult and threatening challenge of digging up the truth and wiping away the layers of spin and political posturing that obscure the real value of stories on the important issues of our day.

In a culture of celebrity journalism, where the lines between entertainment and journalism are blurred, it makes sense that, as a matter of reality, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Al Franken, and Jon Stewart would be the main stories who garner an overwhelming amount of publicity in their own right, while the issues of the country--the business of the day--get ignored or at least relegated to the back burner. In very simple terms, the deterioration of hard-news journalism into a quasi-entertainment culture (if not a pure entertainment culture) has created a situation where the realm of opinion, of spin and edgy, ideologically-based interpretation of events, has become more important than the events and realities themselves.

In light of this reality, let’s go back to the discussion about college football analysis, and the inability of the public to distinguish between recommendation-based analysis (what college football journalists personally think should happen after a given game or event) and predictive analysis (what college football journalists believe will happen as a detatched assessment of the sport and the workings of its polls and other mechanisms). In any context where journalists are newsmakers themselves, it will be genuinely impossible for the public to legitimately determine whether a journalist is giving a recommendation or a prediction, because in the world of electoral politics, predictions of victory often (though not always) overlap with recommendations on policy.

When an election campaign arrives, political operators--and the journalists who merely (and irresponsibly) parrot the spin--constantly find themselves giving both recommendations (what should happen) and predictions (what will happen). Sometimes, the recommendations dictate to predictions, and sometimes it’s the other way around, but in the end, you have the same thing: pundits talking and trying to create stories on their own, removed from the realities of the track records of politicians and the true status of a given issue or piece of legislation. In college football, however, no one--not a single writer, broadcast journalist, coach, player or fan--has the heft, leverage or status to affect or change the welfare of the sport the way a political journalist can (through poor performance as well as positive performance) possibly affect an election or something similarly significant. We college football journalists might personally crave incredible power, but even if that’s the case, we don’t command that kind of prestige right now: we couldn’t make ourselves the stories and centerpieces of our own analysis of the sport, even if we wanted to.

When one then considers just how bad journalism has become in Washington, D.C., and specifically because of the centrality of opinions, and not facts, in the shaping of news coverage, it becomes much easier to realize why people not only hate the media, but why college football journalists--despite existing in a media world very different from that of the White House, the Pentagon, or Congress--are lumped in with those other journalists who have truly failed to uphold their profound public responsibility. Because college football journalists necessarily have to deal with opinions, it’s extremely understandable to see why the American public--realizing how prominent (and corrosive) opinions are in the realm of hard-news journalism--would then blame college football writers for including so much speculation in their articles. It becomes easier to see why the public can’t distinguish between recommendation-based analysis (what should happen) and predictive analysis (what will happen).

What all these explanations and background details serve to illustrate is a very simple thing: when it’s all said and done, the fault in this larger media landscape lies not with a public that is getting cheated in terms of the quality of journalism it receives on a daily basis. And it also does not reside in the corner of college football journalists whose industry is necessarily opinion-based. No, the fault in all of this--the reason why college football journalists are lumped in with the national media as poor practitioners of journalism--rests with hard-news journalists, who--upon being assigned to cover the worlds of political, military and governmental machinations, which demand a dedication to facts and an opposition to spin--have wound up promoting the opinions and not the truth. Therefore, when college football journalists work within an industry where opinions are sadly but undeniably more central to the national championship stories that unfold each season, they get fingered as lazy, sloppy and biased journalists.


As a postscript to the whole discussion about different kinds of analysis, one comment is merited about the very word "should."

When considering the analytical question of "what should happen?", some readers will take the word "should" in different directions. Some will view "should" as a very technical or mechanical word, as in, "If fold A is inserted, then slot B should be filled." On the other hand, some folks will view the word "should" as a moral directive or imperative, as in, "Notre Dame should use higher standards in handling the employment status of its coaches."

This whole controversy about the word "should" explains why so many comments on college football--from me or any other college football journalist--generate such strong emotional reactions from all fans across the nation. When I say something such as, "USC should not be docked," or "Oklahoma should not be criticized for winning by only seven at College Station,"or "Auburn should not be penalized for struggling in the Iron Bowl," it's hard to separate the mechanical assessment from the moral imperative. Why is it very hard? Because the line between mechanics (the system's operations) and morality (what a fair result should be) is almost always blurred, if a line ever exists at all.

So let's have this simple rule from now on, shall we? If the subject matter is football itself--such as an instant analysis piece--assume the word "should" to be a mechanical use of the term, not a moral commentary. Moral commentary applies to issues beyond the white lines, such as the firings of Ty Willingham and David Cutcliffe. Does that make it clearer?

Journalism is a complicated business, especially in college football, and even more particularly when analysis--and not straight reportage--is at issue. Hopefully, the above explanations will make it easier to interpret future stories in their proper light.

Friday, June 20, 2008

College Football Book Archive: Volume One, Second Installment

Chapters 3 and 4 of The National Media and College Football...

Chapter Three: Hawkeye Nation and Other Case Studies: Why Fan-Journalist Interactions Are So Poisoned

Beyond the service of the profession of journalism, the other purpose of this book is to make college football more about football and less about media politics. Later on, we’ll explore a number of football debates that either haven’t taken place at all, or--among those debates that have just begun in small corners of the country--have been unable to attain greater centrality at the college football discussion table. But for now, let’s focus on journalism, and specifically the white-hot emotionalism that is tearing away at the fabric of the relationship between journalists and their audience within the college football media community.

While emotional transactions between scribe (or broadcaster) and fan do come with the territory, there’s absolutely no reason to just stand to the side of the road and allow this dynamic to persist and, if unchecked, deteriorate as the years go by. The potential exists--and I have personally experienced this in a small but existent minority of my readers--for fans to relate to journalists in a different way, and if this new modus operandi can be inherited by America’s college football fans, we’ll begin to make a lot of progress on numerous levels before it’s all said and done. Some of this progress just might translate to the institutional level of college football, where fans--if more knowledgeable about the media’s role (or lack thereof) in affecting the BCS title game matchup--can be more organized, unified and coherent in telling their school presidents, conference commissioners and athletic directors what they want (and what they realize they’re up against) in terms of a college football postseason system. But beyond institutional progress, the more important--and more attainable--dimension of progress that can be achieved by changing the nature of the fan-journalist relationship comes at the personal human level.

In the four years that I’ve written columns for CFN, about 10 to 20 percent of my respondents--after coming on very strong initially, with a barrage of harsh and personalized comments--would then, upon receiving a reply from me, apologize for their emotional outburst and settle into a thoughtful and extended football-based conversation free of personal animus or rancor. These conversations surely enlarged the perspectives of these fans, but they enlarged my perspective as well, making me a better writer and journalist who was able to keep his eye on new dimensions of the sport for future reference in future big-game situations. This just in: I don’t know--and believe it or not, won't know--all there is to know about Division I-A college football. Consumers of college football media--the watchers of College Gameday or the readers of CFN--will, at their best, improve the perspective and thereby increase the quality of the journalists with whom they correspond. But in exchange for being given that constant opportunity, readers and TV viewers need to be respectful of the place that nationally-oriented college football journalists have: a national perspective.

We can’t look at one perspective through the lens of one team, one conference, and one region. It’s not our beat: writers in Huntsville, Ala., are paid to write about Auburn football from an Auburn perspective. And then consider this: while we're not supposed to write just about one team’s view, it’s also a fact of life as a national journalist that even if I or any other national college football journalist wanted to write only about one team’s perspective, I wouldn’t have the time or resources to do so. To write about one team’s outlook in a given season, tailoring every thought to the emotional sensitivity of one fan base, would necessarily create--beyond infidelity to the principles of editorial fairness (let alone my job description)--a drain of my time and coverage from every other Division I-A team in the country, which would mean that I wouldn’t just be unethical as a national writer, but also piss-poor!

On a great many occasions, readers of my national columns have articulated how I and other "national media types" ignore local teams, not caring about a given region or conference in the attempt to focus on other teams that are supposedly bigger, more attractive, and more important in the eyes of the corporate college football media establishment. The home team is always (conveniently) overlooked, underappreciated, or both... that's how the argument goes. But what seems like insufficient coverage bordering on outright ignorance to the local fan of one school is nothing more than the reality of national coverage, which must be spread out and untethered to any one viewpoint. The notion that each school's fan base is a "nation" is not simply a nice, flowery turn of phrase coined by a bored journalist. Every fan base really does have its own tribalistic subculture, endowed with a set of hierarchies, values and attitudinal codes relative to conference rivals and national contenders for all of college football's biggest prizes. The dynamics of each college football "nation" consequently create a media climate in which every word of every article is viewed very personally, with the "us against the world" mentality that is inherent--and moreover, predictable--in each college football fan base.

For example, any pro-Tennessee comment will also be viewed as an anti-Bama comment (and vice-versa). Any pro-Oklahoma comment will be seen as an anti-Texas comment (and vice-versa). Any comment saying that one team was lucky to win is automatically perceived as being a grumpy, negative "sour grapes" kind of smear against that team. On the flip side, saying that a losing team nevertheless outplayed the winning team is perceived as being an excuse-making homer for the ballclub that didn't win. (And of course, such a statement is also--once again--perceived as negative bias against the winning team.) And in the bowl season--or when the BCS debate gets heated--any pro-Pac-10 statement is viewed as being an anti-Big XII or anti-SEC statement. It goes on and on and on.

A very apt characterization of the tribal subculture of college football fan bases comes from the polarized, sensitive and confusing world of race relations. As a Caucasian who has (and has had) a few African-American roommates, I have encountered firsthand the ways in which people relate to each other, based on "insider" or "outsider" categorizations. This may or may not be a familiar story (perhaps the upcoming Will Smith movie Hitch will jump-start this kind of conversation between and among people of different races), but the nature of the example is perfect in its representation of tribalism: when a liberal white guy, trying to establish a friendship with a black guy, calls the African-American friend a "nigger" (or perhaps the phonetically modified, street-flavored "niggah"), he meets with severe, deep and pronounced disapproval, perhaps even anger if the friendship is tenuous and fragile enough. It's only among African Americans themselves that the word "niggah" can be used as an endearing, community-building, and value-positive form of address. So it is with college football fan bases.

I have experienced this reality in each of the four seasons I've written for CFN, but intellectually and emotionally, it only sank in this past season: fans of a team (on message boards, chat rooms, or other communication forums) will rip the living daylights out of their coaches, and perhaps even some players, but when an outside writer (read: not one of us; part of the big, bad media; and therefore out to get us and sabotage our recruiting efforts by staining the good name of our school and program) dares to do the very same thing with the very same words, the attitude among these fans changes. Fans debate about, discuss and criticize the various elements of their team and coaching staff in private circles, but when national college football journalists level similar if not identical criticisms, those same fans turn as defensive as Ray Lewis on third and goal from the 1. It's the classic representation of tribalism: if you're one of us, you can engage in the criticisms, debates, gossipy exchanges, and arguments that are part of this community; if you're not, either stay the heck out of the way or merely say nice, polite things that keep our reputation clean. This is what characterizes so many fan-journalist relationships when the subject is national college football coverage. But beyond these generalized conceptual examples, we need to go deeper and put a face on these dynamics. And for me in 2004, the most specific and in-depth case study of the tribal nature of college football fan bases came from Iowa City and the "HawkeyeNation." The way Iowa fans reacted to a few columns during the 2004 regular season offers a revealing look inside the way fans perceive national college football journalists.

Dialogue and correspondence with Iowa fans was not very regular at all throughout the course of the 2004 season, as was the case in the previous three seasons I wrote for CFN. Why? Because, in conjunction with being a national columnist, I had a particularly good opportunity to focus on the Hawks on only a few occasions. If I were a beat writer for the Des Moines Register, I'd be writing about Iowa football all eleven weeks of the season. But CFN, like any other national outlet, isn't created for the sole existence of covering the Hawkeyes, and remember, if you're not writing about the home team, you don't exist if you're a journalist in the eyes of local fans.

That last sentence offers a fundamentally important point about college football journalism: readers don't maintain season-long dialogues based on a love for the totality of the sport at the national level. It's really about each school, each team, each local community. Any outside media voices are filtered by a college football "nation" relative to the only question that matters: how does it affect "us" as a team/school/fan base? The answer to this question creates a series of follow-up questions and stock conclusions that can be posed in a neat and tidy sequence:

If the story does not affect "us," it's noteven worth reading. If it does, does that same story affect us positively or negatively? If it affects us positively, that's the way it should be. But if a story affects us negatively, is it because of bias or incompetence? If it's bias, it's because that writer has a particular agenda/association/history, and his outlet is simply second rate. If it's a matter of incompetence, the writer is just a hack, and his outlet is simply second rate.

This general, cookie-cutter mold is the very framework that captured the nature of feedback from Iowa fans. They didn't correspond regularly because I didn't regularly write about them. But when I wrote about the Hawkeyes, the fury, fear and judgmentalism came very quickly.

I wrote a Monday Morning Quarterback column (Oct. 24) after Iowa's ugly 6-4 victory at Penn State in which I expressed agreement with Hawkeye head coach Kirk Ferentz for making a rare, strategically courageous, and ultimately successful decision to take a safety up 6-2 late in the game. That reality--namely, that I agreed with Ferentz's decision in one moment of one unique game--was a rather prominent element of the column, which--like every other MMQ column--was devoted to play calling and in-game strategy. However, while agreeing with the Hawkeye coach for his decision, I did criticize what I felt to be a clearly odd and flawed rationale for that decision. Ferentz said in his postgame press conference that he gave up the safety (as opposed to punting in the back of his end zone) because he was worried that Penn State could get a field goal. But since the game was a 6-2 (four-point) contest, I felt that comment to be weird and a poor exercise of logic. Given that the entire college football season had featured unusually poor offense for an unusually prolonged period, it seemed to be a sound journalistic observation at the time. Upon reflection, it still holds up as an appropriate bit of editorial commentary.

But what I've been able to piece together in the months since this episode is that my commentary was based on everything I had seen within the ebb and flow of the national college football season, and of the sport on an accordingly national level. The trajectory and overall content of the column were rooted in national realities. But for Iowa fans--just like the members of any other localized fan base in college football--national comments aren't perceived as such; they're viewed as the predictably ignorant and shallow writings of a guy who doesn't know anything and has an anti-Iowa agenda, just like all other national writers who suffer the same shameful bias. I heard from several dozen Iowa fans in the week after that column was published, all of them irate or--at the very least--clearly disappointed at the article and all its component parts: tone, tenor, content, and conclusions. The fact that I agreed with Ferentz's decision was, for the Hawkeye Nation, dwarfed by the edgy tone of the article, the criticism of Ferentz's stated logic for making the decision, and, furthermore, by the entrenched perception that all national writers don't give Iowa enough respect. When I encountered the disapproval of the Hawkeye Nation for what I thought was a bold act of defending a coach who made what--under normal circumstances--would have been a poor decision, I wondered why I met with such a response.

Certainly, the basic fact that I agreed with Ferentz's decision under the circumstances was the foremost reason why I scratched my head in frustration. But a deeper and more underlying reason for the negative reaction of Hawkeye fans to a not-so-negative article was the simple fact that the supporters of Iowa football did not read my columns regularly as national followers of college football. If Iowa fans had read my stuff regularly over the previous few seasons at CFN, they would have seen--in feature columns but also in "Tuesday Questions" and game previews--that I thought very highly of Ferentz in particular, and of the Hawkeye program in general. But since positive commentary is usually given less emotional weight than negative commentary(something which certainly applies to national electoral politics in America), the positive stuff is glossed over while negativity sells.

This combination of a focus on negativity and a lack of nationally-rooted interest in college football creates a toxic climate where fans don't establish regular relationships with national news outlets or the journalists who write for them. This lack of regular, ongoing contact between fans and journalists then leads to endlessly repeated scenarios that all involve the same chain of events: one article on one team gets picked up by one fan, taken to that team's chat rooms and message boards, gets touted as a classic case of bias against that school, and then becomes motivation for dozens upon dozens of fans to then take that article, now blown out of context and proportion, and shove it back in the writer's face with anger, incredulity, and a general lack of understanding as to why the author could have possibly arrived at such an erroneous and biased conclusion.

This is what happened on a couple of occasions with Iowa fans this year, after the aforementioned Penn State game, but also after the Capital One Bowl as well, when I had the gall to suggest that Iowa just might have been lucky to beat LSU the way it did. Despite a track record over three seasons of acknowledging the quality of Ferentz and the Iowa program, one article got circulated into the bloodstream of "Hawkeye Nation" and boomeranged back to me in the form of dozens of outraged e-mails from Iowa fans who thought I was biased and, therefore, a horrible journalist for a horrible website with a horrible (slanted, ignorant, unresearched, etc.) set of journalistic standards and methods.

For Iowa fans--and the fans of virtually every other localized fan base in college football--criticizing their team was synonymous with poor journalistic quality, which suggests that the opposite (praising a team is synonymous with good journalistic quality) was and is also true for them. This, too, mirrors national politics and the clash of ideologies (Red State and Blue State, in the popular parlance) in America: good journalists, in the eyes of conservatives, are those who--surprise!--promote conservative viewpoints or, better still, those who attack liberal views. And good journalists from a liberal viewpoint are, wonder of wonders, those who attack the Bush Administration. It's all so predictable, yet the damage is significant and the emotional strain is total. To shift the focus back to Iowa fans, what's particularly instructive about their responses to my articles, particularly the Penn State column on Ferentz, is that they came despite the fact that I defended the Hawkeye coach, albeit in an edgy way, while also criticizing Ferentz's rationale for taking that safety against the Nittany Lions. This points out a very illuminating reality about the ways in which college football "nations" of localized fan bases perceive media coverage.

While it is indeed true that positive and negative commentary are linked with good or bad journalism by fan bases in a rather linear way, the response of Iowa fans to the Penn State column shows that if positive and negative commentary coexist in the same article, the negative side wins out. Iowa fans were more upset at my criticism of Ferentz's postgame remarks than they were happy at my defense of Ferentz's decision in the time and place it was made. Another principle that came to light in the wake of this story was as follows: if there are any differences in the tone of an article, only the hints or suggestions of a negative tone get picked up by readers. This was reflected by the fact that, as shown by the volume and content of my e-mails, any compliments about Ferentz--which were admittedly phrased in a fairly cerebral manner--were also cancelled out by the undeniably more colorful way in which I criticized the thought process behind Ferentz's decision. What we're left with, then, as national journalists is a virtually impossible situation to navigate. Think about it as you follow the bouncing football:

* By being national journalists, we automatically lose the attention of a large portion of our readers on a weekly basis, given that we only get extensive feedback--in terms of both passion and quantity--from fans of the teams who we choose to feature in our weekly coverage. That's strike one against national college football writers.

* Strike two is the fact that when we do write stories on certain teams, we're judged not on how those stories stand up as national news events, but as reflections on one team in one community. Given that this one specific community does indeed know more about the nuanced ins and outs of its own team than a national columnist will, national writers are judged according to local standards. That's a no-win situation for a national journalist.

* The domino effect that works against national college football journalists only gets worse when you consider the obvious fact that when the inevitable criticism comes from groups such as "Hawkeye Nation"--given that they judge national articles based only on how they affect Iowa football--that criticism comes without a full (let alone reasonable) knowledge of the specific background or history of the writer or the publication s/he represents. Why? Because these readers--looking only for content on their team and not inclined to read national articles just for the love of the sport--don't maintain that regular contact with CFN or any other website or print outlet. If fans knew the track records of the writers whose articles they read, they'd find that criticism wouldn't be in order. Just as importantly (if not more so), if fans established a regular dialogue with writers irrespective of team-specific stories, and if they got to know a writer before that writer ever penned a story on their team, the rancor and emotionalism that define--and hamper--so many fan-journalist interactions in college football today would markedly decrease.

Case in point? If Iowa fans had done a Google search titled "Matt Zemek Iowa Hawkeyes", they'd have found plenty of articles that gave due credit to Coach Ferentz and the Iowa program over the past few seasons. But since Hawks fans lacked regular contact with the CFN website--being locked in only to Iowa-specific content each week--they didn't know my history or track record with respect to Hawkeye football coverage. As a result, they made the typical barrage of criticisms that--with a little researching or, better yet, season-long dialogue that transcended my necessarily limited and occasional coverage of Iowa football--could be easily proven to be untrue or, at the very least, excessive in relationship to the given context.

In the end, the criticism itself is not what rankles me or any other national college football journalist (or, I dare say, any journalist covering topics and issues more weighty than sports). What upsets me is the fact that criticism comes without consistent readership of published columns throughout the entirety of the season. If fans got to know journalists, dialoging with writers from the beginning of the season to the end with an open mind, the nature of the fan-journalist relationship would be a basically good one. I would not expect full agreement on all or even most issues (and I'd hope that fans wouldn't expect full agreement, either), but merely a relationship of understanding and goodwill in which disagreements could be handled the way mature people are supposed to deal with conflicts: with civility, thoughtfulness and mutual respect. I don't object to any of the criticisms leveled at me by Iowa fans this past season. In and of themselves, the criticisms were understandable, just as they would be from fans of any other team. The objectionable element of what I experienced with Iowa fans in 2004 was simply that they didn't establish a dialogal relationship with me from the beginning of the season to the end. Had they done so--instead of merely picking up my column on a Hawkeye message board (a source outside CFN) and then zooming at me with criticisms--they would have been able to see me in a different light. For one thing, they would have seen--in my CFN portfolio of Iowa-based content--that I gave Iowa a fair shake; secondly, they would have been able to talk about football and football strategy in a more universal and less emotionally polarized context.

Chapter Four: College Basketball and College Football: The Relative Importance of Opinion

Upon reflection, the biggest frustration I and other national college football writers have with fans can be expressed this way: whatever happened to being honestly--and merely--wrong?

National college football writing--given the way college football is institutionally structured and organized--is a necessarily opinion-laden and speculation-driven enterprise. Even when there are plenty of facts and objective truths to consider, national college football coverage--given the fights about the BCS title game participants that unavoidably exist at the end of every college football season--cannot exclude hypotheticals, what-ifs, predictions and projections. How can a writer rank USC ahead of Auburn without speculating, in his or her own mind, about what would happen if the two teams played? That last point is made not with respect to any element of the USC-Auburn debate, but to simply illustrate a larger principle: opinion--the realm of subjectivity--cannot be removed from college football journalism. Opinion is and can be hurtful in the world of electoral politics, where the endless perpetuation and cycling of spin among political journalists winds up preventing the public from hearing what it ought to hear: namely, substantive news on important issues that will affect people's lives. In matters of national politics, diplomacy and legislation, the continued propagation of opinion and speculation on the electoral horse race or congressional catfights is unproductive and, moreover, an exercise of bad journalism.

But in college football, the journalistic equation is different, like it or not. When each college football season careens toward its conclusion, the debate about who's number one (and number two--which is actually of more real relevance, given that the distinction between No. 2 and No. 3 is what ultimately puts one team in the BCS title game and the other team on the outside) is almost always messy, and often--yes--wrong. Opinion is removed from college football journalism only when there are two and only two unbeaten teams at the end of the regular season. In any other instance, the competition between teams for college football's biggest game is an unavoidably subjective one, fueled and furthered by opinions and speculation.

Does this commentary represent in any way an endorsement of the BCS system? It doesn't, and it shouldn't be construed as such. It's merely an honest--though unpleasant--assessment of the reality of college football as a sport and as an object of media coverage. In the arenas of national politics and government policy, there are budget reports and objective statistical printouts that document and trace the progress of people's lives; opinions only count in politics when elections and other public-relations battles are waged by both parties for the public's approval and trust. Opinions do affect elections, but it's the realm of policy that ultimately affects people's lives. Therefore, there's a particular onus on political journalists and at-large news reporters to document the results of policies (good or bad) and explain both the causes and implications of those results. Hard-news journalists exist to tell the public three primary truths: what is happening, why it's happening, and what the given events mean for the welfare of the public. In college football journalism, the calculus is very different. I'm not happy to say so, and I wish I could say otherwise, but I can't.

Yes, preseason polls should be done away with. Yes, the BCS has to be blown up. Yes, the nation's college football coaches need to disclose their vote, if the coaches' poll is to continue at all. Yes, AP writers have to watch every relevant game for their vote to truly mean something. You won't get any disagreement with me on any of those points. But those are all football discussions, for one thing; secondly and much more importantly, they're not about to change or go away. If the polls still exist when the 2005 regular season kicks off--and nothing has happened that even remotely suggests they won't--the college football world will, as a matter of raw fact, continue to operate in a context where: A) speculation and opinion will inevitably help determine the BCS title game participants (unless two and only two unbeaten teams are left at the end of the regular season); and B) the media will be forced to cover stories and analyze both teams and games in light of the weight of what are still ultimately subjective considerations.

Let's put it this way: if the college presidents, BCS executives, athletic directors and conference commissioners--the people collectively in charge of college football, the ones who give the sport its administrative direction (or lack thereof)--created a playoff system or some other structure that would minimize or reduce the role of subjective elements in the determination of a national champion (or even a national title game), the media wouldn't have to write as many speculative or opinion-based pieces. As a college football journalist, I can look across the aisle at my college basketball colleagues and point to the different media context in which they work. The differences between college football and basketball help to illustrate why college football's journalistic challenges are singularly unique.

In college basketball, journalists are given enough games--a full slate of conference races, a full complement of conference tournaments, and the entire scope of automatic and at-large bids for the NCAA Tournament--to objectively declare most teams to be in the 65-team field by the time of the selection show, with the top teams being pegged in their proper seeding slots. Every year, no more than two teams (maybe three at the very most) get unfairly excluded from the tournament--at least in a clearly outrageous and inexplicable manner. Every year, at least three of the four number one seeds are unanimously agreed upon (with the fourth top seed more often agreed upon than not). And every year, the one issue that ignites the most controversy and outrage is the seeding, which admittedly affects a team's tournament draw, yet has ultimately nothing to do with a team's ability to determine its fate with live games. If you're a 6 seed instead of a 4 seed, you still get the chance to win four games for the Final Four, and six games for the national title. What college football team wouldn't love to get a low seeding, as long as it had a chance to play for a national title on the field?

As a result of all these realities, the structuring and organization of Division I men's college basketball, while possessing its share of flaws, nevertheless reduces the role of speculation and opinion in the determination of its national championship game, and by extension, its national champion. This consequently reduces the need for the media to engage in speculation about the teams that compete for college basketball's championship. In college football, the debate centers on the division between No. 2 and No. 3 out of 117 teams. In college basketball, it is true that opinion does factor into the debate, but only when the issue concerns the 65th and 66th teams out of over 300. This leads to a simple enough conclusion: if you're the 66th best college basketball team in America, the possibility that you were shafted by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee--however real--fades away in light of two realizations: 1) you get another postseason tournament to play in (the NIT), unlike college football; and 2) it's obvious that you didn't do enough to close the deal. If you weren't good enough to be in the top 22 percent of all Division I college basketball teams, you can have only so much of an argument, and only so much real outrage. In college football, however, you can very easily be No. 3 in the country, feel that you've done what you've needed to do to reach the BCS title game, and yet get excluded from the big party anyway. While your basketball brethren get a chance to compete for the title if they merely make the top 22 percent of all the teams in Division I competition, you must make the top 1.6 percent of all Division I-A football teams if you are going to be able to compete for your sport's officially sanctioned championship. If you're the 66th best college basketball team in America, you have at least 6 to 10 losses on your slate (if you're from a small or mid-major conference), and possibly 11 or more losses (if you're from a power conference). But if you're the No. 3 team in all of college football, you could be what Auburn was this past season--unbeaten--or what USC (in the BCS, at any rate) was in 2003: possessing but one loss in an otherwise dominant conference-winning season.

As a result of the differences between college basketball and college football, the ways in which college hoops journalists and college football journalists work--and, moreover, in which their work is perceived by fans in each "nation"--are accordingly different as well. In college basketball, it's only the game analysts--Billy Packer and Dick Vitale, basically--who are ever criticized at all, and even then, it's not for their tournament selections, because they don't make them. (Packer got in trouble last year for a remark made about seedings--between Oklahoma State and Saint Joseph's--in the East Rutherford Region, but not about the tournament's 65-team makeup.) Isn't it interesting that you virtually never see or hear of college basketball studio analysts or print journalists getting criticized in mass-media contexts by fans? Vitale and Digger Phelps are not seen, on Selection Sunday evening, as being responsible for one team's entry in the tournament or another team's exclusion. Yes, Vitale is seen as a pro-Duke analyst (perhaps the way CBS's Verne Lundquist is seen as a pro-Tennessee college football commentator by some fans), but he's never seen as a media analyst who is responsible for teams being in or out of the NCAA Tournament. You don't hear about the AP's Jim O'Connell or Dick Weiss of the New York Daily News as being influence peddlers who squashed one team's hopes of an at-large tournament berth at the expense of another more deserving team. There's a reason for all this: college basketball is not held captive to opinions or polls, given that a playoff tournament always plays itself out, resolving hypothetical debates on the hardwood floor.

In college football, it's different. You do see and hear about criticism of Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit on the first weekend of December, as witnessed--and read about--upon the conclusion of the 2004 college football regular season. Our friendly print-based competitors at ESPN, people like Ivan Maisel and Gene Wojciechowski, come under similar scrutiny for their every vote and opinion at the end of each college football campaign. The Associated Press--a non-factor in college basketball--becomes the center of countless Internet firestorms of controversy, discussed on message boards by Auburn, Oklahoma and USC fans to no end. Does this mean that college football journalists are less reputable and honest in comparison with college basketball journalists? Heck, no! It's simply a reflection of the fact that college football--sadly but undeniably--is a much more opinion-based "athletic-industrial complex" (a take on Dwight Eisenhower's reference to America's "military-industrial complex"), which necessarily makes college football journalism a more opinion-based profession.

Regardless of whether you're looking at the print side or the broadcast side, you simply can't avoid the reality that college football journalists have to base much of their analysis on subjective comparisons, given that college football's championship-deciding method is (woefully but genuinely) dependent on opinions rather than clear and universally acknowledged facts. Unless or until anything changes in college football, this reality has to be accepted. It most certainly does not have to be liked one bit (I don't), but it has to be accepted. When that kind of reality is accepted by fans, college football journalists will no longer have to live in this poisoned media climate where any opinion for one team is seen as an attack against another, and also--unfortunately for the profession of journalism--the representation of biased, lazy and ignorant, bottom-rung journalism.

Being wrong is so often perceived by fans (and I had thousands of them telling me as much this year in their e-mails) as being stupid and unprofessional in the exercise of one's journalistic responsibilities. Why can't journalists--like me and anyone else at CFN, not to mention our competitors in both print and broadcast outlets--be allowed to simply be wrong? When will the day come when a journalist can be wrong and yet not be seen as a homer for one team, region or conference? Since any national college football journalist is professionally asked and required to give a countless stream of opinions, predictions and other speculative comments on everything in the sport--its big games, top players, high-profile coaches, the BCS standings, and everything else that matters in college football--the sheer volume of opinions cranked out by national journalists ensures that we will always be wrong a considerable amount of the time. Show me one national college football journalist who picked Virginia Tech to win the ACC; Oklahoma to lose the Orange Bowl by 36 points; Florida to lose to Mississippi State; Auburn to go undefeated; Utah to make a BCS bowl; Pitt to win the Big East; the three Sunshine State teams to lose on the same day (as they did in late October of 2004); and countless other surprising events. You can't. Yet the way some fans of each of these wronged or underappreciated teams would tell it, being wrong about any of these events was not just a sign of just how little we national college football journalists really know (it's true--we are hardly experts in the truest sense of the word), but a sign of both bias and laziness.

Believe me, being wrong is not a problem--it comes with the territory as a national college football writer. But what stings me each day when I read e-mails--and what also affects the way the profession of journalism is perceived--is this pervasive notion that being wrong is equivalent to displaying biased agenda-driven writing and sloppy reportage or analysis. Once more, college football just doesn't allow for objective truths to be fully revealed, as writers are necessarily left to guess when assessing the best teams in the land. In college basketball, events play themselves out, as the regular season, conference tournaments, and Big Dance feature an appreciable scope and variety of cross-pollinated matchups involving teams all over the land. In college football, you just don't get that: consider that eight of eleven regular season games are conference games, leaving just three non-conference slots for each Division I-A team, with at least two of those games being, if not cupcakes, reasonably comfortable contests.

If a Division I-A powerhouse schedules even one really big non-conference game in late August or early September, it's big news in college football, and writers like me thank the heavens for providing but one really huge non-conference matchup in a sport that offers way too few of them. When the calendar hits Thanksgiving and then December, all a national college football writer can do is play the "what-if" game in his or her mind, based on the very incomplete assemblage of realities that exist in the sport at the end of that given season, with its unique personality and flow. In the NCAA Tournament, USC, Auburn and Oklahoma would have gotten No. 1 seeds in their respective regions; in college football, one of those three very attractive teams was going to be left out of the national title mix. Those are evidently two drastically different scenarios with dramatically different stakes involved for the competing teams.

College football is wretchedly unfair to its teams, and journalists like me have noted that reality to no end, in 2004 and in each previous season. But once our chest thumping about the cruelty of the BCS is once again completed, we are required by our editors and publishers--the people who hire us, fire us, assign us, and monitor us--to make predictions and exercise our best journalistic instincts to tell an eager public about one thing: who should play in the big game? It might seem incredibly difficult for college football fans to accept or even understand this, but they simply have to: national college football journalists are not all-knowing and almighty power brokers. They have influence, to be sure, but they don't call the shots, and they're supremely limited by the constraints imposed on them by the structure, organization and dynamics of the college football industry. Would that we, the national college football writers of America, could call the shots and enjoy considerable power in reforming the sport the way we think it ought to be reformed. Oh, if only we could drive the agenda. And oh, for the day when we could do our job by doing more reportage on debate-deciding playoff games (or at least bowl plus-one games), and less speculative analysis on who we think should play in the BCS title game.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

College Football Book Archive: Volume One, First Installment

This archived piece was originally written in January and February of 2005. Subsequent chapters will be posted in future installments. We'll take things nice and slowly here. -MZ

The National Media and College Football: Why Journalists Are Under the Gun

By Matthew Zemek, National Staff Columnist, CollegeFootballNews.com

Chapter One: Journalism 101

Before one can talk about college football in relationship to the media, one must talk about journalism first.

Journalists, in very real ways, must always be under the gun. This applies to deadline pressure, editorial expectations, and to the weightiness one’s words carry into the public domain.

Journalists must always be accountable: to their profession, their editors and publishers, their fellow journalists in other media outlets, and to the readers they are ostensibly supposed to serve. If journalists aren’t reading their mail or giving an honest response to their wider audience, they’re failing the public and are forfeiting the precious communal trust they are given when they step into the hot seat in front of the keyboard. This is particularly true for "hard news" journalists who cover wars, elections, and other matters that affect people’s lives at a very deep level. When the stakes are high and the issues are complicated, any strand of opinion or analysis meets with withering scrutiny from a public whose opinions are both extraordinarily passionate and astoundingly diverse at the same time. On a larger level, this is not only the way things are, but the way things are supposed to be. If people don’t care enough to express themselves and speak from genuinely heartfelt experiences in a dialogue with their providers of information, news analysis and informed opinion, society will slide into nothingness.

Communication from readers to journalists is a necessary sign of a healthy public commons, and it’s part of the job of journalists to respond with understanding, take the heat when needed, and look past the emotionalism that pours from their audience in each day’s boatload of e-mails. Much like referees and policemen, doctors and lawyers, journalists have to realize that raw emotions will be vented at them on a fairly consistent basis. Appreciating this reality then enables a journalist to not meet emotion with more emotion, to not view profane or nasty letters as true windows into a reader’s character, and to not get sucked into corrosive interactions with readers who often just want to get something off their chest. Journalists are supposed to suck it up, derive value from their interactions with their audience, and sift meaning from the emotions, statistics and arguments that are hurled their way all the time. Knowing what’s real and what isn’t: that is a fundamental and foundational skill that journalists must continue to develop over the arc of their careers, in service of a profession whose reputation is lower than low in contemporary America. In order to make journalism better, and in order to serve their audience more effectively, journalists covering wars, politics and economic issues must all be able to sniff out the truth after wading through spin, ideological bias, corporate doublespeak, government secrecy, and raw emotional exaggeration. In a complicated world, journalists must be able to identify the phony and the factual, and transmit both the reality of the world and the implications of said reality to their audience. In the journalistic playbook, that’s how the game is supposed to be played out on the field.

It rarely is.

And because it rarely is, today’s journalists live and work with a supreme burden: the burden of knowing that merely by being a journalist in 2005 in America, your reputation and identity are assumed to be lower than that of a used car salesman or lawyer. If you’re a journalist who does your level best to try and sift fact from fiction, only to meet with instinctive and total assaults on your very credibility (even your identity), it’s hard to keep telling the truth without being emotional, without giving way to the easy urge to respond to a nasty letter with your own biting sarcasm and hard-edged word games.

Chapter Two: College Football as the New Political War

For journalists who cover the weighty machinations of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and economic policy, it’s understandable--maybe even necessary--that emotions are over the top. When matters that affect people’s pocketbooks, their physical safety, and their children’s future--among other such things--are on the table, people have cause to be extremely worried and accordingly emotional. You can’t take it away from them: if their security is profoundly threatened in a genuine way, they have a right to be afraid, and fear will manifest itself in uncomfortable ways before that heat can eventually (hopefully) generate light.

But all that applies to issues of real importance. Death and taxes, the rise and fall of nations and ideologies. That kind of stuff. It was never supposed to apply to a freakin’ football season. (See, I’m getting emotional about this already...)

Yes, everything that necessarily applied to the War in Iraq and the 2004 U.S. presidential election has seemingly taken root in the college football community. What is supposed to be fun and games has been hijacked by a grim, defensive, emotionally sensitive and even--yes!--fearful mindset among a great many college football fans in this country. College football--based on the searing emotionalism of thousands of incredibly invested fans--seems to be a matter of life and death, of the rise and fall of nations--for a large number of people, larger than I’ve ever realized before.

The rise and fall of nations in college football is real. After all, you have Gator Nation, Tiger Nation, Dawg Nation, Troy (once a great nation, remade in USC), andcountless other nations. The rhythms, patterns, words and geographical realities that pertain to U.S. politics seem to apply to college football as well. You have a situation in which people from the South and the Central Plains are hell-bent against the West, and vice-versa. People in all regions of the country outside the Northeast think that New York and other "elitist East Coast media centers" have a corporate agenda that is set against the success of their region, their conference, and their foremost team. USC, Oklahoma and Auburn fans spent four months disagreeing mightily about which team was truly the best in the 2004 season, but they all agreed on one thing: the media was biased against them, bent on seeing them fail, and motivated by a corporate agenda to write anything negative about their team. Journalists--even those not given a vote in the AP writers poll--were viewed as the problem: its source, its summit, and its center.

Sure, it’s true that journalists--even in sports, beyond the world of politics and war--are supposed to suck it up, but it was never supposed to be this bad, this cutthroat, this emotional when the subject of college football is involved. Yes, sportswriters will always get some emotional e-mails from beer-drinking fanatics who absorb the talk radio/barroom gossip sports scene like a sponge, but it seems as though the polarization and emotionalization that belong to contemporary American politics are increasingly infecting the college football community. Fans who know their stats, possess a considerable amount of intelligence, and make otherwise cogentarguments are nevertheless entering a fight in which they feel compelled to write to and then rip the living daylights out of college football journalists. The e-mail addresses of the respondents to my columns posed, in and of themselves, an intriguing and fascinating sociological narrative: health care workers, lawyers, an aide to a United States congressman, government employees, a judge, and--well--a lot of college graduates and alumni wrote in this year. Almost all of them wrote well, but despite the elevated quality of the written text of their letters, they nevertheless sounded the bitter refrains more profanely unleashed by the stereotypical beer-belliedsuperfan who has no life outside the sport. In 2004, educated college football fans did the same thing that millions of educated Americans did in politics: they blamed the bejeezus out of the media for virtually every single problem under the sun. In my inbox during the 2004 season, I was labeled "you people," "hack," "national media type," or "East Coaster" several times. Forget the fact that my regular columns--the Weekly Affirmation and Monday Morning Quarterback--are, if nothing else, very in-depth explanations of football that avoid easy or convenient conclusions. Disregard the fact that my writing style and line of argumentation are quite nuanced. And, of course, also ignore the fact that I grew up in Phoenix and lived in Seattle. I was apparently still an East Coast media elitist who clearly had agendas against various teams, conferences and regions, depending on my views. Fans attacked first, and asked questions later, if at all.

Let’s pause for a moment: all this might admittedly seem like a ton of pointless and weak-kneed whining from a writer who is either thin-skinned, bitter, or just worn out after an Autumn in which it seemed particularly difficult to live as a college football columnist. All of the above commentary could seem like mere venting, the outpourings of a psychologically fragile person who is stressed beyond measure, and who needs a shrink 24/7. One could understandably perceive a very childish and even cowardly nature to the journalistic lament just outlined. But here’s why this book matters, and why I felt compelled to write it: it’s not about me (as hard as that might seem for any nonjournalist to believe about a book written by a journalist). This book is about the reputation of both the profession of journalism and its individual practitioners, in college football but also beyond. Because the sport of college football is not only becoming politicized, but politicized in a way that so eerily mirrors the nation’s already-corroded politics, it’s important to prevent a cherished American institution from being even more tarnished than it already is.

College football, even with the presence of split and/or mythical national championships, had a lot more romance in the pre-BCS era than it does now. There have always been debates and controversies about national champions in college football through the years, but with the BCS has come an increasingly serious, almost grim, climate surrounding the BCS title game, the event that is supposed to determine the national champion. There have been heated controversies in the past, but in all of them, there was never the sense of pure betrayal or, worse, conspiracy generated by the BCS.

If there was a perceived injustice in any season before the BCS came along in 1998, it was not framed in terms of a wholesale systemic breakdown. Why? Because there was no system. They just played the bunch of New Year’s Day bowl games, voted on a champion at the end, and that was it. The AP writers’ and UPI coaches’ polls might have gotten it wrong, but there was an understanding of how incomplete the whole process was. Furthermore, the lack of ESPN (which didn’t hit its stride as a saturation college football broadcaster until 1993, with the arrival of College Gameday) and other cable or satellite TV outlets created a situation where writers and coaches couldn’t view the vast preponderance of all college football games during a season, even if they wanted to! Remember, it’s only been in the past decade in which everyone associated with the college football industry could finally view most of the product each Saturday at the Division I-A level, with dozens of games (out of roughly 50 played each full week of the regular season) available on the ESPN family of networks, GamePlan, Fox Sports’ regional networks, and even (gasp!) a few major broadcast networks. The fact that fans can see so many games is a new reality that everyone else in the sport--writers, coaches and administrative officials (for both schoolsand conferences)--has simply not adjusted to. The people in charge of college football have been incredibly slow to realize the impact of saturation television coverage on the implications of the polling and analysis that admittedly factor into the creation of a BCS title game matchup.

But the very fury surrounding every controversial BCS title game (in other words, every year except 1999 and 2002) only serves to illustrate the comparative lack of bitterness in the pre-BCS era. Even if the champion was mythical, split or otherwise controversial, there was not the communal sense that the sport of college football let down an entire country, conference or member institution. Joe Paterno and Penn State were left at the altar a number of times over the years after perfect seasons in Happy Valley, but as JoePa soldiers on in State College, one simply doesn’t hear much, if anything, about the icon’s reputation being tarnished by four seasons in which an unblemished record still didn’t deliver a national title. It’s not going out on a limb to say that being the national champion didn’t matter as much in the days of yesteryear. But today, it certainly does matter, and if you make the BCS title game, only to then embarrass yourself on the field, the stakes are high and the recriminations ever more intense from the fans of the team that felt it should have been picked for the Big One. The 2005 Orange Bowl is a perfect case in point.

In past title games before the BCS era, the Oklahoma Sooners would have still been ripped for losing by 36 points to USC in Miami. But in the BCS era, the Sooners had to endure not only criticism of their own sorry effort, but also the wrath of the college football community and the Auburn football family for dogging it against the Trojans. See, in the BCS era, it’s not enough to merely make the BCS title game if you’re chosen to participate; you have to come up with a respectable showing if you want to save face and be viewed as a legitimate runner-up. The BCS has ushered in an era in which college football’s national championship game involves two battles, not just one. One battle is to win the game and the perceived national title that goes to the BCS champion (aside of the AP writers’ champion); but the other battle, which is in some ways even more important than the first one, is to prove that you belonged in the title game in the first place.

Just as there was no systemic breakdown in all the pre-BCS years when college football crowned a mythical or split champion, the BCS offered the expectation (perhaps a false one, but an expectation nevertheless) of a system, and consequently, of systemic competence in determining the two title game participants. Certainly, the combination of polls and formulas, of strength of schedule and quality win points, of a midseason release (unlike the preseason polls) and the use of average valuations (numbers gained from several sources instead of flat rankings from just one or two sources, a la the AP and UPI polls of yore), was going to create a legitimate, scientifically objective championship game matchup free of taint and above the typical media fray... or so everyone initially thought. But as soon as it became clear how impotent computer microchips were in the face of the messy, uneven realities of each and every college football season not ending with two and only two unbeaten teams, the amount of bitterness among college football fans began to spike, as the crude outpourings of crazed fanatics turned into the witty yetbitingly sarcastic and angry e-mails of a more educated and articulate segment of college football’s fan base.

There can be no doubt about it: today’s college football fan is Internet-savvy; able to do much more individual research and investigation; aware of the latest statistical reports and comparisons; granted instant access to fully informed arguments that support his/her personal viewpoint (or more accurately, rooting allegiance); exposed to many more live TV games; and generally much more educated than the typical college pigskin fan of 20 or even 15 years ago, before ESPN began to provide wall-to-wall coverage of the sport. This means that media pervasiveness--which has a direct correlation with media access and mediaawareness among college football fans--has significantly affected the way fans view the sport they love and the journalists who cover it. Everything is more intense, more personal, more serious, and more of a cause for outrage if the journalist giving an opinion is viewed to be horribly wrong. This is the culture in which college football journalists now live--it’s not what it used to be, and it sure isn’t like the media environment in which Grantland Rice lived.

The man who named "The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame" and wrote with a mythically grand literary voice was celebrated by the public he served, venerated by readers the world over. Aside of Keith Jackson--and even his reputation is becoming increasingly stained in the eyes of many college football fans with each passing season--virtually noone in the past 40 to 50 years of college football journalism is celebrated and praised in a near-universal and almost unconditional manner. Sixty years ago and beyond, however, Granny Rice and his contemporaries were venerated. It’s instructive to note how much the media landscape has changed in college football, inaccordance with both the level of saturation coverage given to the sport, and also the system used to determine the Division I-A national champion. The more the scrutiny and the more the saturation coverage of games, the more the media is viewed as pure evil. It’s a far cry from the times in which Grantland Rice spoke of a blue-gray October sky, and American football fans ate up the delicious imagery that captured a nation’s sporting imagination.

For college football fans and media consumers, every word from a journalist seems to be a weapon used in a holy war that has all the attendant emotional intensity of a larger-than-life event. Columnists like me are either perceived to be on the right side, or on the wrong side. We either "get it, or--if we dare say something against the home team--we don’t. By criticizing USC, I’m obviously an Auburn-loving redneck. By gently pointing out Auburn’s limitations, I’m unmasked as a West Coast homer. By mentioning just one or two matchup disadvantages Oklahoma would have with USC, I was exposed as someone clearly bent on destroying Sooner Nation and undermining the prestige and credibility of the OU football program. As Bugs Bunny so often said in his decorated Looney Tunes career, "Dem’s fightin’ woids!" Everything I said unleasheda torrent of emotions and immediately accompanying claims of both bias and utter professional incompetence. No middle ground, no nuance, no understanding, nosensitivity. I never feared for my life this past Autumn, but my intellect (and moral compass) were scared by what seemed to be an alarming amount of rage about a mere game. (Yes, college football is a business, but it is a business in the context of "entertainment," and not other more serious industries that affect lives in more profound ways. Let’s get some perspective here.) It might seem innocent to some, but not to this columnist: 2004 put me very much in the firing line, the hottest of hot seats. It wasn’t fun; college football shouldn’t be like that.

Now, the discussion must shift to a new way of seeing both the media and college football, putting the fun back in the sport while also clarifying a whole host of questions about the role of the media within the college football community.

Introduction to the Vault

As Jim Nantz of CBS Sports would say, "Hello, friends."

Hopefully, that last word--"friends"--will mean something, even on the Internet, where the immediacy of communication is tempered by the lack of face-to-face contact and all the gesticulative intimacy that one misses as a result.

I've lived almost a third of a century, and I'm at a point in life where I've gained a certain amount of knowledge about the human condition and the planet. I can and will be shocked--even though I tell myself I won't be (sound familiar to you?)--but I am experiencing a certain amount of (hyper-)saturation. I don't think one piece of new information will fundamentally overturn my whole attitude or worldview, for better or worse. A certain settledness has begun to enter into my understanding of the world. This doesn't mean I'm closed to new insights--anything but; it means that I've begun to truly appreciate how much of a messy, muddy mystery life is, beginning with my own self. As Richard Rohr--a gifted Franciscan priest-author and one of my foremost spiritual guides--would say, "Humble people know that they don't know."

Without saying much more, my simple and sincere hope for this blog--which will not be a running compilation of fresh new insights so much as it will be an ever-expanding storehouse of my collected writings over time--is that it will lead you to places of greater wisdom, understanding, and edification. I particularly wish that anything you might gain from my writings will lead to you gift the world in some way. I see three specific openings or avenues through which this blog can help you on your life journey:

1) It can enable you to debate the great subjects of our time (and of the American white male realm): politics, religion/spirituality, and college football. Being able to debate and discuss current affairs, the realm of the eternal, and anything in the sports world with civility, learnedness and depth is no small matter. The book idea I'm tinkering with at the moment is, in fact, How Better Football Analysis Can Save America. You can e-mail me or use this blog's comments section to gain a better idea of what I'm aiming for.

2) These archives can pry loose a desire to be a better teacher or explainer to others--be they colleagues or young people. We have such a need for elders in our American society today. Elders are not old people (that's the "elderly"), but wise people. We need people with wisdom who can infuse both the workplace and the home--one's contemporaries and one's children--with a better way of doing things. This pursuit goes beyond the act of debating subjects expertly; it involves education and encouragement in the attempt to mold a better future for our world.

3) This archive-based blog can simply make you, the reader, want to be more of an activist, a force for positive social change, in some manner. Perhaps you won't necessarily want to talk more or teach more as you read this blog, but will simply want to serve more. Perhaps you might see ways to be an active force for positive change in your church. But maybe, the college football section of my archives will lead you to agitate for responsible reform in the sports world (there's plenty of advocacy work to be done in that realm). It could be that this blog will lead you to be more vocal in demanding better journalism and more accountability in the media at large. And quite possibly, the current events/politics postings on this blog will kindle in you a desire to help the helpless, homeless, voiceless and powerless in a world of great disparities.

All in all, dear readers, I hope that this blog is not just something you read for your enjoyment, though that's certainly never a problem for me or any writer. I hope that the reading of this blog and what will become a steadily-expanding vault of material (mostly in college football, but surely accompanied by politics and religion as we go along) will lead you to want to edify the worlds around you, large or small, in some profound and discernible way. The last thing I want is for my writing to be consumed but not acted upon in some meaningful fashion. Writers do live to have their work published and distributed, but as a Catholic Christian person in a world beset by brokenness and injustice, the true value of my writing is its ability to create in readers the forces and awakenings that transform attitudes and improve individuals, one by one. May your journey with me on this blog be a journey that leads you teach, learn and serve more fully in this life, a life spent in a world that is both astonishingly beautiful and paralyzingly painful.

In conclusion, I make this special plea: While writers like to get paid--and regular 24/7 bloggers ask for donations from readers to keep their sites going, while also justifying the enormous expenditures of time and effort that faithful blogging entails--I wish to propose something different.

If you like my work, first of all, pass it on to those in your circles. Spread the word. But secondly, instead of giving me a donation, just do something good for someone else, and let me know about it. You'll notice two charity-related links on this blog (along with the links to Catholicism, college football, and current events), but let's be clear in saying that our society should not think that monetary contributions are the alpha and omega of giving. In fact, "checkbook charity" is the very kind of mindset which leads people to avoid the harder but more gratifying and meaningful work of meeting needy people--whether in need of education, consolation, or food--face-to-face.

The only thing I ask is that whatever you might be led to do, tell me about it. You can e-mail me, or you can use the comments section on this blog.

Thanks for your soulful presence, which will edify me on my journey. In turn, I hope that you'll be enriched by this tour of writings, the fruits of both my journalistic and private endeavors over the past seven years of my life.