Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Selling your Soul to ESPN

ESPN just kicked off intercollegiate basketball coverage with a 24 hour game blitz. Typical stunt, good publicity and as one might expect done with absolutely no concern for student athlete welfare. What's more interesting about a stunt that hurts students is that schools scrambled to get coveted windows in the event sacrificing sleep and classes for exposure.

ESPN monopolizes college sports. It dominates bowl coverage. It shapes the dreams of players who want to be on highlights. It controls national and regional exposure for teams. It's "windows" are desperately fought over by conferences and teams eager for exposure for their teams and the recruiting advantages that such exposure brings.

The fundamental point to remember in all this is that ESPN does not  care about student athletes. Despite the palaver and player of the game scholarships and pious platitudes and the great NCAA commercials, ESPN wants PRODUCT and ENTERTAINMENT. (Please excuse all the capitals, it's not my normal style, but this is IMPORTANT, blast it.)

Product and entertainment--can ESPN produce good product to gain eyeballs and market share. This translates into profits for ESPN and visibility and recruiting success for the schools and conferences. Fair enough, except for the fact that for ESPN they are not students, barely athletes, only product and eyeballs. Have you noticed the proliferation of football games to every night of the week. And during basketball season, you have Big 15 Monday; Little Midwest Tuesday; Atlantic Whatsit Wednesday.

Mens' basketball and football are the two most academically challenged and vulnerable teams in collegiate sports. Missed class time is disastrous for these teams. One of the strong advantages of the Thursday - Saturday or Friday - Sunday schedules for basketball is that it minimizes lost class time. The great advantage of football on Saturdays is that most teams travel on Fridays and minimize lost class time. Helping under-prepared student athletes get an education requires focus, investment and continuous effort to socialize them into being students and not seeing them or treating them just as athletes. Their futures depend upon their ability to change their identification from athlete to student and from athlete to human being. ESPN does not care about this; ESPN does not care about missed class time; ESPN does not care that they make money off the most vulnerable and potentially exploited population of student athletes. They care about money, profits and maximizing the ratings. This drives coaches and Athletic Directors to care about maximizing exposure and taking the windows that ESPN offers; missed class time and student athlete welfare be damned.

The ESPN monopoly has entered a new phase with its groundbreaking contract with the SEC. This year each SEC teams receives over 11 million dollars off the top, before any season starts, to reimburse them for the rights to ESPN-SEC.  This ginormous contract dwarfs anything seen before and maybe after for a conference. It answers the Big 10's initiative to create its own TV channel dedicated to Big-10 sports. Over the next three years the Big Easy, the ACC, the Big12 and the PAC-10 all come up for TV renewals.  All will flirt with starting their own networks; all will use it as a ploy to pry more money from ESPN; very few will succeed since none have the fanatic market base the SEC has. But ESPN will remain the broker of intercollegiate sports, and the status of missed classes and the vulnerability of at risk student athletes will continue to suffer compared to the chance to get access to ESPN's windows.As I mentioned above, in the "second annual" (espn generates new traditions every week) 24 hours of basketball, schools lobbied and fought to get time slots like 6 AM designed to ensure students were exhausted for the rest of the day, and of course ESPN chose a class day, Tuesday, but teams scrambled to miss class time and get the exposure.

The devil always offers what you most want. College sports programs want exposure, money and glory; ESPN offers all three, all you have to do is give them your soul.

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1 comment:

  1. First, this is a great topic.

    I think you are right to point out that it is ultimately the school’s fault for allowing this to happen. ESPN is a business; they are going to do whatever is beneficial for the shareholders. That is what we, as a society, expect from a public business.

    The reason why intercollegiate athletics was organized and sanctioned by schools to begin with over a century ago is to help protect the student athletes. This may have been a noble cause, but colleges don’t really have a good track record of doing this. I totally agree with you that games held during the week are bad. Everything should be done to minimize the amount of missed class time. It is hard to integrate the athletes into the student body when the athletes are never there. It is hard for the faculty to accept the athletes as being students if the students are never in class or if they are underprepared because they do not have time to study.

    I think the proliferation of “academic support centers” has been as much of a curse as it has been a blessing. I think athletic programs now believe that they can take the students out of class more frequently because the tutors at the academic support centers will just get the students caught up. Well, that is not a good idea. The tutors can’t possibly know everything about every course taught on a campus. Of course, that is why many believe that athletes are steered towards “friendly” courses that highly restrict an athlete's course choices.

    Let’s look at the early morning game that you mentioned in your original post. I don’t know if the home team of that game has an on-campus arena or not, but if they do, just imagine the type of disruption the game was to the regular students. The ones that went to the game will have trouble focusing on academics during the day (if they even go to class or study), but even the ones that don’t want a part of the game will be disturbed by all the racket generated by the game. We are approaching the end of the semester crunch time. The last thing these students need is more distractions. I’m not even going to discuss the impact these games have on the athletes, band, and other peripheral students because that is obvious.

    I have heard that some schools take their students out of classes in order to travel to a centralized conference media day. I think the athletes fielding reporter’s questions is a good educational experience, but does this really require taking the students out of class? Secondly, it would be a lot more educational if the reporters asked questions about the courses the players are taking and about their intellectual interests. After all, isn’t that what college is about? Yeah, those questions don’t sell newspapers or TV commercials, but I don’t think the schools would allow the athletes to talk about such things even if they were asked about it. Look at all the uproar and condemnation regarding eye black messages. Are college students no longer allowed to have individual thoughts?

    The funny thing is that so many schools are so desperate for any kind of attention that they are willing to do all sorts of questionable acts just to get a little air time. I wonder what kind of ratings those middle of the night games garnered. Sure, the commercial value of those games might be better for ESPN than the sixth re-run of SportsCenter, but does that mean anything to the schools? Big-time (and even more so the wanna be big-time) college sports is kind of like reality TV. People want attention so bad that they are willing to do moronic things just to get on TV. What is the net benefit to the athletes and college? Ultimately, that must be the central question that administrators ask.