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ESPN risks journalistic integrity with SEC Network investment

Dan Mullen and Mississippi State rode high in the rankings while the quality of their early schedule was low in 2012.Dan Mullen and Mississippi State rode high in the rankings while the quality of their early schedule was low in 2012.

Last week the Southeastern Conference entered into an extremely lucrative partnership with ESPN to create the SEC Network. Set to begin broadcasting in August 2014, the network is certainly a great thing if you're a fan of the SEC or of the rich getting richer. But for ESPN, the multi-media platform arrangement represents another example of the "Worldwide Leader" putting profits ahead of its duties as a journalistic organization.

You see, I have no problem with ESPN's basic programming model that essentially turns out a series of shows where people yell their opinions at one another. It's hard to fill 24 hours of broadcasting, so if Around the Horn and First Take keep eyeballs on the network during the day, I don't begrudge them that. What is so problematic is that with its focus on cross promotions with its parent company, Disney, and their constant blurring of the lines between the teams/athletes that they cover and the organization itself, ESPN has gone from reporting the news to shaping it. The SEC Network almost erases the line completely.

Here's how it works. Now that ESPN has such a vested interest in the success of the network, the likelihood of stories that could embarrass the member institutions, such as the Outside the Lines piece on synthetic marijuana abuse at Auburn as one example, may not receive the same scrutiny that they normally would.

The second and perhaps most important effect will be the impact that this network will have on the newly-created College Football Playoff.

The ESPN/Disney/ABC conglomerate currently owns the rights to the BCS Championship, and the Worldwide Leader will televise the College Football Playoff as well when it starts after the 2014 season. The schools of the SEC have the largest average television viewership for football by more than a million people over the second-place Big Ten. So it certainly won't hurt ESPN throughout the regular season to have SEC teams in the hunt for spots in the playoff.

I know what you're saying, "SEC teams are always in the National Championship conversation anyway; so what's the problem?" Here's the problem. It's not the impact on an Alabama or an LSU. When ESPN commentators continually talk up the lower tier teams of the conference, people listen.

Take Mississippi State a year ago. The Bulldogs won their first seven games of the season and climbed to number 11 in the BCS rankings. Among the seven "juggernauts" they faced were South Alabama (2-11), Tennessee (1-7 in the SEC), Kentucky (0-8 in the SEC), Auburn (0-8 in the SEC), Jackson State (FBS) and Troy (5-7).

After the great start, the Bulldogs finished 1-5 when they actually played some competition. State was never the 11th best team in the country, but because they were in the SEC, the bunch from Starkville was highly overrated. Even as they started to lose, their fall in the polls was slowed by the reputation of their conference.

There is no way that the people who fill out polls and create power rankings can watch every game and have a finger on the pulse of every team. So what happens? Voters rely heavily on the experts to help shape the narrative. ESPN is the loudest voice out there. When their talking heads - many of them former SEC players and/or coaches - continually tout the conference as the best bar none, it has a direct correlation on where teams land. And now with the stakes higher than ever, as well as the potential revenues, I firmly believe that ESPN will do whatever it can to protect its investment. Better rankings yield better bowl games with bigger cash payouts and exposure.

And then there's the national championship chase.

Last week, when asked about the playoff, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva intimated that he expects two teams from the SEC to be represented annually in the four-team playoff for the national title. You can hear the grumbling from the rest of the college football world already. Stay tuned.

 
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