Thursday, March 08, 2012

ESPN: Entertainment and Syracuse Protecting Network

ESPN has a voracious appetite for big stories. But they're allergic when Syracuse basketball is on the menu. Cuse runs a dirty program. The #2 team in the country has been failing to punish (or even notify) players that have tested positive for illegal drugs. The timeline of the infractions includes SU’s 2003 NCAA title run. Seems like an interesting story. I wonder why ESPN barely covered it.

Marv Albert. Bob Costas. Sean McDonough. Jayson Stark. Mike Tirico. Syracuse University produces sports media personalities like the 1980's Miami Hurricanes produced quarterbacks. Actually, it's like Miami with QBs, Auburn with RBs, Penn State with LBs, and USC with WRs all combined. That's how abundant Syracuse grads are in sports media. If you want to get to Bristol, CT, the road starts in Syracuse, NY.

I went to college 56 miles south of Syracuse. That entire region of New York state revolves around SU basketball. In Central NY, Jim Boeheim is Lord of the Realm and Syracuse BBall is more like a religion than a sports team. And why not? There’s nothing else there to divert attention and affection from SU BBall. The AAA Syracuse Sky Chiefs are the next biggest team in the area.

Syracuse's biggest fans might be the future sportscasters, reporters, editors, directors, and writers that matriculate at SU's Newhouse School of Public Communications. It makes sense. Young men and women who passionately love sports (so much so that they want a career watching and discussing sporting events), congregate in the middle of New York and the one team (and only team) they can all root for is Syracuse basketball.

It's the only story to cover, the only game to talk about, the only team to love. Even when struggling, SU BBall set attendance records for NIT games. Their fanbase is rabidly devoted to that team.

These intensely dedicated student fans don't leave their passion behind when they graduate, take off their orange t-shirts, put on a suit and tie, grab a microphone, and cover sports for ESPN. There may be no cheering in the press box, but if cut, these people will bleed orange.

Normally, the prospect of a big news story makes a reporter salivate like a dog in a butcher‘s shop. Reporters relentlessly dig for information, writers type stories all night, producers and executives dedicate hours of TV time to coverage. Perfect example: Penn State sexual abuse scandal. That story was covered so heavily and closely that the story about the story became a massive story in and of itself.

But when Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine was accused of something similar, there were no banner headlines. There were no live broadcasts from Onondoga County. It was a side story, almost a footnote to the Penn State scandal.

When Boeheim accused the accusers of lying and seeking only money, the outcry was minimal. Boeheim's insensitive remarks weren't plastered across They were buried. To Boeheim's credit, he did apologize.

ESPN used their shovels to unearth and excavate the Penn State sex scandal. They then used the same shovels to bury the Syracuse sex scandal. ESPN originally buried the story in 2002 when it failed to disclose the accusations, despite having this audio tape in its possession:

One of Bernie Fine's accusers gave this audio tape to ESPN. ESPN reported nothing. Did they investigate the story? Probably. Did they investigate with the same relentless drive that they investigated Sandusky and Penn State? I doubt it.

I can imagine a group of ESPN staffers receiving this information and reacting much the same way Boeheim did in 2011: disbelief. An angry reluctance to believe that it might be possible. These reporters didn't want to find any corroborating evidence to besmirch their beloved basketball program. In 2002, Syracuse was on it's way to their first NCAA Championship. Why try to dig up dirt during such a happy time?

Can you imagine a Syracuse fan busting their ass to confirm a story that would distract his/her favorite team during a championship run? Just because the fan works for ESPN doesn’t mean they left their bias behind in the Carrier Dome.

The same thing has happened again. The Syracuse drug scandal story isn't a secret. It's not being ignored. But it's not exploding across ESPN either. When other college sport scandals break, ESPN doesn't have a rooting interest. They just see a potential story, and they cover it. Relentlessly. They cold-bloodedly dig dirt and expose it to the light. As they should.

But with Syracuse, the rules change.

Watch ESPN and see how much they'll talk about bounty payments in the NFL. Peyton Manning leaving the Colts was a blessing for the SU fans that work for ESPN. Something substantial to further bury the SU drug scandal.

When they did talk about this scandal, the coverage was dry, free of flare, free of sensationalism. Look how bland this is:

There isn't even a picture or a stock video of Syracuse playing. Just a big "S" in the corner of the screen and John Anderson reciting a lengthy, grey monologue.

Go to the college basketball page on and if you can actually find a link to a story about Syracuse and drugs, you get a prize. There is a story about Syracuse being invited to the 2013 Maui Invitational. Because apparently that's hard-hitting, late-breaking news.

This isn't a backroom conspiracy. There's no executive order, no secret agreement to keep this story from growing. ESPN isn’t trying to cover it up, but they don’t seem to be trying to expose it either.

ESPN reports other scandals with ruthlessness. And that's how media should report the news. Woodward and Bernstein wouldn't have uncovered the Watergate scandal without occasionally acting like jerks to confirm vital leads. But Woodward and Bernstein wouldn’t have been so motivated to reveal the truth had they gone to school with Richard Nixon. Similarly, ESPN has no motivation to smear Syracuse basketball, or taint Jim Boeheim’s accomplishments. In that sense, Bristol, CT is very much like State College, PA. It’s a community of fans that will blindly defend their program and their heroic coach.

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