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.