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The gorilla in the room

Is ESPN good for college football? On face value, the answer would obviously be that it is. It gives college football more exposure than it’s ever had and puts millions of dollars into the coffers of college football programs every year.

But it’s not that simple.

If you are one of the handful of programs that ESPN has anointed as the bastions of the game, then ESPN is definitely good for you. The positive attention is a boon for recruiting. The network keeps your name in the public eye, hires your coach to do advertisements and more.

If you are one of the programs that ESPN has anointed as a loveable underdog, it’s good for you, too. How many people would really be aware of Boise State were it not for ESPN?

But if you’re one of the other guys, especially if you’re one that doesn’t stay in its perceived place, ESPN isn’t always so good for you. When the network decides to do indepth stories on the supposed ills of college football, it will look at you first. And when it does a report that is filled with holes, its own commentators and radio show hosts spring to its defense.

Never was there a better example than in 2010. ESPN broke the story that the NCAA was looking into the recruitment of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. No problem there. It was news. Then ESPN proceeded, as is its way, to try to prove its own theory of the case. It turned every postseason awards show that included Newton, even the Heisman Trophy announcement, into a grilling session.

When Newton and Auburn were cleared, ESPN shrugged its proverbial shoulders. To this day, some ESPN commentators refuse to accept reality. They still hint or say outright that Auburn’s national championship was tainted.

When, instead of an unbiased search for the truth, the effort is to prove your own theory and call it news, you lose all credibility. Even in this day when the line between commentary and news reporting has blurred, that’s as true as it ever was.

And now comes the latest: last week’s long story on former Auburn players and synthetic marijuana. The author and others from ESPN have taken to the airwaves to defend a story that was so full of holes it’s already been blown to pieces. Will ESPN admit that? No chance. Instead we hear a national radio show host spend days trashing Auburn as if he has a clue of what he’s talking about. We see a television commentator who also has no clue do the same.

ESPN isn’t alone, of course. But it’s the gorilla in the room.

There are lots of good reporters at ESPN. Chris Low, who covers the SEC for ESPN.com, is as good and fair as you’ll find. The same can be said for columnist Ivan Maisel and others. It’s not guys like Low and Maisel that are the problem. When we started AuburnUndercover.com in July 2008, we were affiliated with ESPN. I discovered quickly that it’s a behemoth of an organization in which one hand frequently doesn’t know what the other is doing.

What can Auburn do? Nothing, really. ESPN’s billions give it unprecedented influence over college football. I don’t know many people, if any, outside of Bristol, Conn., who believe that influence is healthy. ESPN's cash buys power, and ESPN is the ultimate opinion-maker. All the while, as an organization, ESPN is about ratings, not fairness.

And there is no sign that will change anytime soon, if ever.

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