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,

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.

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