When ESPN signed a blockbuster $2 billion, 15 year deal in August of 2008 with the Southeastern Conference for the rights to televise sporting events including football and basketball, many wondered what impact the agreement might have on the future of sports.
Some, echoing the sentiment expressed by former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville, expressed concern at the amount of influence the network now commands and raised the question of where the line between broadcasting games and having a vested interest in their outcome begins to blur (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/149651-espn-influence-is-also-its-curse).
As the 2009 SEC season unfolds, many are wondering if the specter of tampering with the possible outcome of games might already have reared its ugly head.
In recent weeks a series of egregiously bad officiating calls have gone against opponents of both SEC front runners Alabama and Florida.
It's undeniable that the calls in question changed the dynamic of the games if not their actual outcomes and each contributed heavily to keeping both the Tide and Gators undefeated through 10 games.
When the Gators were in danger against a resilient Arkansas team, the Razorbacks were mystifyingly flagged for a personal foul. The sham penalty extended a Florida drive allowing the Gators to tie the game with just over seven minutes remaining.
When Mississippi State challenged the Gators, the officiating crew and then the replay booth, allowed a Florida touchdown on an interception when the naked eye and numerous slow-motion replays proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the ball was fumbled before crossing the goal.
On Saturday, with Alabama up six and driving in the fourth quarter, LSU intercepted a Greg McElroy pass. Everybody in the stadium saw it. Everybody watching on television saw a clear pick with both feet placed squarely in bounds. There was even a large divot where the first foot had been planted.
The only people in the stadium who didn't see the interception? Two confused officials and a blind replay booth. The officials ruled the pass incomplete, but not before they looked into each other's eyes as if puzzling over what to do. Adding insult to injury, the the replay official confirmed the errant call.
Alabama went on to kick a field goal and increase their lead to nine. The difference between a six point spread and nine point advantage is canyonesque in a game where points are at a premium.
Could LSU have driven the field and scored to take the lead? Alabama fans snort at the idea and insist their defense wouldn't have allowed such an affront, but stranger things have happened against better teams. Would the Tigers have seized the shift in momentum and broken the back of Alabama's undefeated season? As a result of the blatantly erroneous call, we'll never know.
Later, officials failed to react to an obvious foul on a screen pass to Julio Jones that helped spring the Alabama receiver for a long touchdown that sealed the win.
Shoddy officiating or a pattern of protecting the league's sacred cows?
"Speculation," LSU head coach Les Miles grimly offered in the aftermath of the loss to Alabama, "is rampant."
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen, Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin, and Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino have all come under fire for questioning the competence, if not the integrity, of the SEC officiating crews.
The crew that worked the Arkansas-Florida game was suspended for their blatant incompetence.
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive has made it clear that he won't tolerate criticism of officiating by firing warnings and leveling fines on coaches who do -- even when those coaches are correct in their assessments.
When coaches are prevented from questioning obvious wrongs and are fined for speaking out, does that promote transparency or make it appear that the SEC does, in fact, have something to hide?
What does the SEC and by proxy ESPN have to gain by offering protection to Alabama and Florida? Isn't the adage that an upset can happen on any given Saturday part of the pageantry and allure of college football?
The answers? Money, and lots of it. And not so much any more.
ESPN has a multi-billion dollar tie in with the SEC. It is in the best interests of the network for the SEC to be represented in the BCS title game. The parent company of ESPN, ABC, owns the broadcast rights to January's title game. It is also in the best interests of that network for an SEC team to hold one position.
When Florida was in trouble against Arkansas, can you imagine the suits at ABC sweating? What if the Gators had lost? And then beat Alabama in the championship game? Would the BCS computers spit out a Texas vs. TCU or Boise State vs Cincinnati title matchup? That would spell ratings disaster.
No, the SEC needs to make sure it holds up its end of the bargain and sends either the Gators or the Tide to the major stage.
Forget pageantry and the innocence of the college football experience, Cinderella's a great story, but it's not good for the bottom line if the kitchen help shows up at the ball and steals the spotlight away from the pre-ordained princesses.
Texas is, at this point, a virtual lock. The Longhorns would have to stumble and stumble badly down the stretch. Baylor, Kansas and Texas A&M should pose no significant threat to Texas' march to the title game and the Big 12 North opponent in the Big 12 Title Game is likely to offer little competition.
With half the bracket hopefully filled, ESPN and ABC needs a Florida or Alabama on the other side of the slate to help boost ad revenues, amp up viewership, and pad ticket sales. The networks can't afford to roll the dice on a BCS computer spitting out a Boise State or TCU at number one or two. Think of the lost revenue.
But what if Texas does trip over a blade of grass down the stretch? If the Tide and Gators are potentially off the board, the networks could envision a disaster of comet-smashing-into-the-Yucatan impact.
It's a worst case scenario nightmare, the kind of thing that causes network executives to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, to consider the possibilities if media darlings Florida, Alabama, Texas, USC and in any other season LSU and Oklahoma were to all fade.
USC imploded; ESPN and ABC couldn't help the Trojans despite spending $2.4 million on hair gel for Kirk Herbstriet and getting Pete Carroll to grace their commercials.
Oklahoma flopped. Not even the networks could magically repair Sam Bradford's shoulder, but not for lack of trying.
By the time LSU got to Alabama, the Bayou Bengals had a loss under their belts. Not wise to risk a one-loss team making the SEC title game and knocking off an unbeaten Florida.
The networks can't do anything about Texas, the Longhorns have to make their own way. But what if they don't?
Should Texas fail and if the SEC Champion is toting a loss, the possibility of a BCS title game between Boise State, TCU or Cincinnati exists.
That would be the mother of network nightmares. If the BCS burped out a Boise-Cincinnati BCS title game, it could also spell the beginning of the end for the BCS itself. The major conferences would balk and balk vociferously at a system that could create a title game that lacking in old-school star power.
To what lengths would the SEC and its partners ESPN and ABC go to prevent just such an epochal event?
Is it too much to believe the network might subtly exert its $2 billion muscle and quietly encourage the SEC to protect its investments?
Is such a suggestion coming from a company that staked 15 years of its future on the league really so far-fetched?
Whether there's any veracity to the suspicions and speculation that now runs rampant, the video evidence appears to show a conclusive pattern to the botched calls. Perception is reality and the appearance of impropriety clearly exists.
Not even a replay from the booth can overturn that call.