Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Narrative

I guess the main focus of my posting this time of year is on media coverage of college football. As you may have guessed, I think it's not very good. A few bloggers this week, after Tommy Tuberville's and Beamer's comments, have noted, like I have earlier in the year, the dominance of ESPN in the college football opinioneering world. I think that this hegemony is a bad thing for the sport, since the games are affected by externalities. I think the problems are numerous, and that those who have talked about a corporate bias in favor of the teams or conferences that have direct ties to ESPN and its parent company are probably right. Put it this way, ESPN would be dumb not to cover the Big 10 heavily. With more coverage, there's more interest, with more interest, there's more viewers, with more viewers they can charge more for ad revenue and everyone's happy.

But that is only one of the main problems with ESPN's coverage. The other is a wider, deeper problem with mass media journalism, and isn't specifically an ESPN problem. That problem is with "the narrative," which has become the way all news coverage seems to work these days.

In mass media journalism, there is a greater reliance on profit than in the past. And when profit matters more, the corporate heads want to ensure that the journalists stay within bounds - whatever stories are covered need to be more predictable, so the accountants and such know what they can expect. Things are planned out in advance. Storylines are decided upon weeks ahead of time. It's a matter of certainty.

And in the college football journalism world, certainty matters too. As early as the Spring, storylines are developed and plans are set in motion. Gameday knew probably back in January that the Ohio State-Texas game would be a huge matchup, so ESPN started hyping it a month ahead of time. ESPN decided USC would be a big story, so they've had Shelley Smith preparing in depth stories for months.

The key is that they decide upon the story ahead of time, so when something comes up that doesn't fit the parameters of that story, they don't know what to do.

A prime example was Auburn last year. Preseason, Auburn was way off the radar. They were an underachieving team that just didn't perform. No buzz whatsoever. Of course, they did have every important player returning and an easy schedule, but they just weren't part of the narrative going into the year. Last year's narrative was about USC, Oklahoma or Texas and in the SEC, Georgia. Auburn wasn't part of the narrative. So when they kept winning, people didn't really know what to do with them. The story had been decided already, and that was that USC and Oklahoma were the best two teams.

The truth of the matter is that nobody knows anything until the games are played and it's settled on the field. But that brings spontaneity into the equation, and that isn't something major corporations can allow for. It's a whole lot easier and cheaper to just keep Steve Cyphers in South Bend and have him file stories about Notre Dame than it would be to have him flying all over the country covering teams that have surprised people.

So there has to be a narrative and we have to stick with it.

[as a side note, there also is the ever present, "see how right I was" inertia of punditry that fits into the narrative, but that's another post.]

This year it's pretty easy to see how narratives have developed, and how things change once the narratives don't really work out.

Example: In the SEC, pre-season, most pundits, writers and coverage focused on three teams - Florida, Tennessee and LSU- and one coach, Steve Spurrier. Florida had a new coach who was going to bring a totally new style of play to the boring old 3 yards and a cloud of dust league. Tennessee had a dynamic young QB, a good RB with a great pedigree and a fantastic D. LSU had talent galore. Spurrier is Spurrier. Then Florida started losing and the dynamic offense couldn't move well at all. Tennessee's dynamic QB wasn't good at all. Suddenly the two teams in the East nearly everyone picked to win weren't very successful. So do they change the narrative and bring up how surprising Georgia is instead? Nope, just talk about how the league is "down" and disappointing. Two undefeated teams, three top 10 teams. But when they aren't the teams the wise men in Bristol thought they'd be, the league is down. A shift in the narrative is plainly evident

For the Heisman Trophy race, a narrative is clearly needed to jumpstart any campaign. The USC players had it preseason, along with Vince Young. Guys like Ted Ginn and Marcus Vick had the narrative behind them before a single snap was played. Then the games started, and really the only candidate that has had any traction is Brady Quinn, with a built in narrative behind him.

But for the national title, the narrative takes on a different meaning. As readers of this blog have known, I believe undefeated teams deserve a chance at a title. The reason: nobody's beaten them on the field. Comparing two teams in college football is difficult because there are too many variables (different schedules, different matchups with opponents). I think it is a fool's errand to try to say one team is definitely better than another when both have not been beaten on the field. Nobody knows a damn thing unless it's settled on the field.

And that's why I can't stand the comments like "Team X and Team Y have definitely separated themselves from the rest of the pack." The only way for two teams to separate themselves is if every other team has lost. Those two teams might look better than the rest, but no matter how you slice it, it's just conjecture. Nobody knows how USC would far playing Alabama's schedule, and nobody knows how Texas would fare playing UCLA's.

All this brings me to a fascinating discussion on (I know...) Sunday's episode of The Sports Reporters. Here's a transcript:

John Saunders: ...we also have another system where there is no playoff and that's in college football where the top two teams both won CONVINCINGLY, but we could have a huge logjam at the end of the year. But USC and Texas are CLEARLY 1 and 2

Thomas George: And I think they're going to make sure we don't have that logjam. I think as the season continues on, they're going to separate themselves from those other teams. I see them as clearly better than Alabama and clearly better then the other guy- Virginia Tech and the other teams that are chasing them.

Stop there. The only way there won't be a logjam is if there are only two unbeaten teams. The other teams have to lose. No team can "separate itself" aside from beating other unbeaten teams, which Texas and USC have only limited ability to do. But take note at how the host framed the issue - think Narrative. Now continuing...

Mike Lupica: Do you really think they're that much better than Virginia Tech?

George: I do. I think they're that much better than Virginia Tech and I think they'll show it as the season rolls on. And not only do I believe that, but I think Texas is the team that has the upside, I think they're the team. While USC is the darling and they have the streak going, I think we need to really keep our eyes on Texas.

See what happened there? USC, he hints, is already the darling and is assumed to be a top team. But we need to watch Texas because they're a clear #2. Separation is the narrative, pick out your eagle and feed it, starve the chicken. Continuing...

Lupica: [rants for a while about the BCS ] Is there anything that Virginia Tech can do over the rest of the season to pass Texas if they both end up undefeated?

Saunders: They would have to do something so great, make such an impression that the human voters would put them ahead of Texas.

Lupica: Don't you have a problem with that? Marcus Vick isn't even going to have a chance?

Bob Ryan: There is that chance. It's 45-0 over Miami. That's their chance. They have to destroy Miami, that's their chance, that's asking an awful lot.

Stop right there. More narrative. These guys have already decided on it. Say Texas plays lackluster the rest of the way? Doesn't matter. Did they require Texas to beat OSU by 45? No. The decisions have been made and the coverage must adapt to the decisions. Continuing again.

Saunders then brings up the queer fact that the initial BCS 1 and 2 have never met in a title game. Lupica thinks that's a reason to hope, then talks about Texas-Texas Tech for a while.

Then the most interesting, and HONEST portion of the entire debate:

Ryan: With all due respect to our friends in Blacksburg and Tuscaloosa... We don't want you. OK. [Lupica tries to interrupt] Don't take this personally. We don't want you.The rest of us in America want SC and Texas. We want those 2 programs, we want... That's the only Rose Bowl we want.

Lupica: How can you possibly say that?

Ryan: Because THAT'S THE TRUTH. The generic college football sportsfan wants that battle of the titans and nothing else. We don't want VT, we don't want Alabama. We want Texas and SC, Michael that's the truth.

Lupica: But you don't know that.

Ryan: I'm not saying it's fair, but that's what we want.

Lupica: But don't say that's what we want.

Ryan: We want the horse and the band and the big drum and together in the same place at the same time January 4th in the Rose Bowl. That's what we want. What's the big stick with VT? I don't know. What do we care about Alabama? I don't know. We want Texas and SC.

George: I will referee and agree with Bob. Because I really believe that Texas now... where they've been a team that has flopped and you have a lot of criticism of Mack Brown in the past, the coaching is going with the playing, that team is in synch. I think they're an exciting team and an exciting QB. You get Vince Young in that game with Matt Leinart in the game, and then everything rolls from there.

And if you ever needed a better description of how things work in college football, there it is. Why are Texas and USC the best Rose Bowl teams? The horse, the drum, excitement. Alabama and Virginia Tech cannot provide that (let alone Georgia or UCLA). The national media has a story in their mind and they will promote that story no matter what. They want the story they've already written. They want the game they've already mapped out. Never mind that each team has 5 more games to play. Never mind what the other undefeated teams have done already, or might do. They have a narrative, and they want to see how the book in their own heads ends. Period. Ryan is dead right, and dangerously honest.

Let's face it. The matchups that decide the national title are decided upon in production meetings months ahead of time. The teams that make the sexiest title game are discussed between writers and editors in August.

That's how you want to decide a champion? Not me.