(Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)
I, like many college football fans, shuddered at the announcement of the ESPN–SEC television deal. ESPN’s coverage of the SEC has in recent years been fairly over the top, and that was without (I hope) direct financial incentive.
Now the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” has a financial interest in making the brand that is the SEC as marketable as possible.
Colour me horrified.
As background, let me explain what I see as the two most prevalent issues with recent SEC media coverage:
SEC Phenomenon One: Any favorable attribute or event associated with any individual team in the SEC is automatically attributed to the fact that that team is in the SEC conference. The most ubiquitous example of this phenomenon is the constant reminders that each SEC team has an “SEC defense.”
Here is a typical scenario involving SEC Phenomenon One: An “analyst” states that “Team A may have a tough time moving the ball against Team B’s SEC defense.”
Note that Team B’s predicted success in containing Team A is not supported with defensive statistics, or the fact that Team B itself has had success containing offenses similar to Team A’s; it is enough to say that Team B has an SEC defense. Query: is that the same kind of defense Utah played against in the Sugar Bowl last year?
SEC Phenomenon Two: Anything negative that befalls an SEC team is either (one) ignored (see Alabama vs. Utah) or (two) attributed to a brilliant characteristic of some other SEC team. Thus, if Auburn is shut-out by LSU, it’s not a sign of Auburn’s offensive weakness; nay, it’s just the obvious consequence of playing an SEC defense. “No worries, Auburn, LSU would have shut itself out too if only it could play itself.”
This is why if Auburn and LSU play to a 3-0 finish it is nothing less than a wizardly display of defensive genius, a feat to be marvelled. If, however, Wisconsin and Purdue play to a 3-0 finish, it is a pathetic display of offensive ineptitude, proof positive that the Big Ten is finished.
My fear is now that ESPN and SEC are business partners, the hyperbole might get worse (something I never imagined possible). Exhibit A is Thursday’s coverage of the NC State – South Carolina game. Jesse Palmer made the game virtually unwatchable with his SEC homerism.
As an example, here is a paraphrased, but accurately represented, conversation between Craig James and Jesse Palmer during Thursday’s broadcast, which represents a case of SEC Phenomenon One:
James (perplexed): "I’m really surprised at how bad NC State’s offense looks. They just don’t look as crisp or as sharp as they did late last year."
Palmer (all coy, with mock sincerity):"But might that not be because tonight they’re playing an SEC defense (as opposed to the lowly ACC defenses they played last year)?"
James (now reading off of the teleprompter): "Ahhhhh….that’s a good point."
What! How is that a good point? When James said “that’s a good point”, what he was actually saying was this: “Oh shit….first game of the year and I forgot that South Carolina is in the SEC conference (and thus has an SEC defense), but now that young Palmer has reminded me, it’s quite clear to me why NC State’s offense looks so shitty tonight.”
Absurd. Why couldn’t Palmer have simply said, “Well, Craig, we should give South Carolina credit because their defense is playing well tonight, which might explain some of NC State’s offensive struggles” (though I think NC State would have looked awful against any defense on Thursday) instead of “Well of course NC State’s offense is having trouble, they’re playing an SEC defense”?
How does the fact that South Carolina is in the SEC conference automatically mean that it has a good defense, especially in the very first game of the season before they’ve proven anything on the field?
What about South Carolina’s offense, or NC State’s defense? South Carolina’s offense was obviously, ahem, “rusty” (read: god-awful), but that didn’t fit the script. Did good defense from NC State contribute at least in part to South Carolina’s offensive woes? Of course it did, to some extent. What say you, Mr. Palmer? Sorry, NC State, no props for you.
In fact, despite South Carolina’s offensive suckiness (pardon my technical phraseology), Palmer referred to them as a “special bunch.” Naturally, I threw up in my mouth when he said that, though I think by that point my ears were already bleeding. Anyway, let’s see if anyone will refer to South Carolina as a “special bunch” by year’s end (unless “special” is announcer-speak for “mediocre”).
This example represents a case of SEC Phenomenon Two: South Carolina’s offense was horrid, but that fact was ignored by Palmer. Make no mistake, if NC State was an SEC team, we would have seen the other variety of SEC Phenomenon Two: South Carolina’s offense struggled, but that was only because it was playing a mythical “SEC defense.”
Who cares, you ask? Ok. Jesse Palmer is a monumental d-bag, but he is entitled to his blowhard opinions. I get it. But what gives me nightmares is the thought that his incessant use of the three letters “S-E-C” was prompted by a pre-game reminder from the powers that be that ESPN and SEC are now, officially, in bed with one another (i.e., “humping”).
In other words, Palmer was responding (in a WAY over-the-top fashion) to the corporate memo issued to on-air “talent” addressing the effective marketing of the SEC brand. More nightmarish is the possibility that he got an “atta boy” after the game (where he clearly should have received a dirty look or something).
Maybe I’m over-sensitive, but I think this is something to watch in the coming weeks. Listen closely for examples of unnecessary SEC attribution. Count how many times you hear the phrase “SEC defense” in a non-conference match-up (Hey! Drinking game!) and compare that to the number of times you hear it in an all-SEC battle.