Chris Fowler is a legitimate superstar in the world of college football broadcasting. He has made College GameDay the juggernaut it is. Yet, one can love everything about Fowler and still watch Premier League Soccer or Masters 1000 tennis from Europe on fall mornings. Why? Because live games trump pregame shows and their chatter every single time.

Chris Fowler In the Crosshairs: What His SEC Rant Says About ESPN And College Football

Chris Fowler caused quite a stir this past Saturday. Anytime a central college football media figure steps into the ESPN-SEC conversation, the college football world pays attention. The Student Section editors are here to tackle this issue, and we’re happy to invite a special guest — TSS columnist Allen Kenney — to our roundtable.

Before going forward with this discussion, know that one of our partner sites at Bloguin has addressed this topic: Matt Yoder of Awful Announcing weighed in on L’Affaire Fowler this past Saturday. Be sure to give his story a look and use this discussion as a companion piece of sorts.


What is your response to this (now-viral) Chris Fowler rant?


EDITOR’S NOTE: Fowler’s on-air remarks followed these two tweets sent earlier last week, which also form a part of this larger discussion:


Terry Johnson:

On Twitter @SectionTPJ

Although I never watch GameDay anymore, I used to respect Chris Fowler. Whether he was covering college football or tennis, audiences could always count on Fowler to present both sides of the argument by citing facts. Even when he had a dog in the fight, he did his best to remain neutral.

Not anymore. With just one sentence, Fowler completely destroyed his credibility.

For those that missed it, here’s what he said:

“I’m a little defensive, but I get defensive when stupid, uninformed stuff gets repeated again and again, and somehow people all over the world think we have a stake in having three teams from this league get in.”

If anyone’s uninformed in this case, it’s Fowler. Regardless of how “impartial” he claims ESPN is, the network does have a vested interest in the SEC’s success. If he’d read Bart’s article last week, he would have seen how Bo Pelini’s comments about the unholy alliance between the SEC and ESPN were 100 percent accurate, and why it might not even matter in the end.

More importantly, Mr. Fowler fails to recognize that most college football fans do think that the four-letter network is biased in favor of the SEC. In fact, an ESPN poll conducted after Pelini’s comments, indicated that 81 percent of the respondents thought the network was biased in favor of the SEC. 

That number would be even higher if the poll were conducted today after Brent Musburger’s “Somebody says we’ve got SEC bias, deal with it they’re the best.”

Much like a neutered dog, he simply doesn’t get it. Bias perceived is bias achieved. As long as viewers continue to see it that way, the network has a problem. Remember, the first rule in running a successful business is that the customer is always right.

What sickens me most about his comments is that they’re extremely unprofessional. Even the greatest journalist in history will receive his/her share of criticism over time. When that happens, it’s on the individual author to respond with facts to support his or her opinion. Merely saying that people who feel differently are stupid and uninformed does not fall into this category. While that type of behavior is acceptable for a three-year old who didn’t get a second scoop of ice cream, it’s simply not okay for a professional broadcaster, whose job is to support his opinion with facts and evidence.

Shame on you, sir.

Allen Kenney:

On Twitter @BlatantHomerism

Fowler is correct in so far as the conspiracy and agenda accusations against his employer do go too far. He’s also right on the granular level regarding the playoff: A lopsided tournament in favor of one conference or region doesn’t have the same appeal as one where the participants come from all corners.

So I can understand why Fowler would bristle at the accusation that he’s an SEC shill, but he’s kind of ignoring the larger point.

ESPN does have a bias towards its bottom line. Pumping up its partners helps draw eyeballs, and we’ve reached the point where the Worldwide Leader and the SEC are essentially intertwined. Intentionally or not, ESPN is increasingly building its college football identity around that particular conference, which leads to a barrage of SEC-heavy promotion and chatter. It’s a smart business decision to cater to such a passionate audience. At some point, though, everyone else just gets drowned out.

Bart Doan:

On Twitter @TheCoachBart

I don’t watch College Gameday. Never have. And never will. So I come to this with a disadvantage. That said, it means nothing to me. Chris Fowler is just like the rest of us, a shill to who pays his bills.

Most of us, come hell or high water, will defend our employer because that’s who butters our bread. If we have an issue that’s of measure, we support the company out front and then have internal discussions about how to change it.

Fowler did what’s expected of an employee, and that’s defend the company he works for even if the criticism is legitimate. … and to me, it is. There’s no point in rehashing the same article over and over that I’ve written to this point, but ESPN has a vested financial interest in the SEC’s success, so the company obviously roots for it and promotes its employees forwarding the message.

The only interesting thing about this entire ordeal is that you start to wonder at what point the spin cycle of ESPN propaganda reaches a negative crescendo.

At some point, people become like I did long ago and give up on watching or listening to crap just to be outraged, as opposed to finding something else to do. At some point, you promote the same thing so much, and everyone buys it so much, that everyone else feels disenchanted with their chances and just sort of tunes out and says, “Well, that’s their thing now, so, whatever.”

ESPN should be careful with the propaganda, because no matter how much money it might be making now, there’s eventually a tipping point. People cut through the BS as they age, and as with news programming or anything else, people grow up and realize they’re done watching slanted opinion passed off as fact.

If fans feel as though it’s just the Deep South’s football teams and then everyone else is just sort of there for show, they’ll gradually stop caring.

Where that line is and when it happens, I have no idea, but don’t think it doesn’t exist in a following generation. As for Fowler, he’s just saying what the guys who line his pockets want to hear, whether he believes it or not.

When you consider Chris Fowler's remarks, you're free to arrive at your own conclusions. Just be sure to look at them from various perspectives: from a corporate perspective; from the GameDay production truck's perspective; from Fowler's own perspective; from the perspective of how different college football media coverage would have been if Ohio State had thumped Florida in January of 2007; and other vantage points you might not have previously considered.

When you consider Chris Fowler’s remarks, you’re free to arrive at your own conclusions. Just be sure to look at them from various perspectives: from a corporate perspective; from the GameDay production truck’s perspective; from Fowler’s own perspective; from the perspective of how different college football media coverage would have been if Ohio State had thumped Florida in January of 2007; and other vantage points you might not have previously considered.

Matt Zemek

On Twitter @SectionMZ

The substance of Chris Fowler’s remarks contains a mixture of the reasonable and the irrational. Picking apart his words and their veracity is not that complicated. It’s the context surrounding Fowler’s remarks which demands unpacking and explanation.

Fowler vented, and as Bart said, he’s saying something in defense of his employer, which we can all readily understand no matter how else we might view this larger set of issues. There’s a measure of politics here, and when public figures make political statements, we know there’s an intent behind the words. So what if the statement isn’t entirely accurate? It’s politics. Political people make political statements in political situations.

Yes, Fowler was and is plainly inaccurate and wildly excessive on some fronts. Labeling notions of pro-SEC bias on ESPN’s part as “stupid” and “uninformed” is way off the mark. Fowler can disagree with the contention that his employer favors the SEC — there’s nothing wrong with that. Insisting that said contention is “stupid,” though? We can laugh that one right out of the room.

Fowler is correct in saying that balanced regional representation would be great for the playoff. What he says also gets to the point that if Ohio State had drubbed Florida in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game (the first season in which the BCS went to a five-bowl setup and created a stand-alone title game with its own name), the SEC’s centrality in college football might not have become the pervasive reality we see in front of us today. Ohio State’s twin losses to Florida and LSU in consecutive BCS title games, combined with USC’s annual thrashings of Big Ten teams in Rose Bowls, did so much to shift public perception to the point of calcification in a highly-politicized portion of college football history. Fowler’s remarks didn’t directly say this, but that’s a large layer of subtext worth mentioning.

Let’s go beyond Fowler’s immediate remarks to an even deeper degree. There’s one very particular point I want to get across before this discussion ends.


Covering tennis as I do — I am, for those unaware, the editor of Bloguin’s tennis site, Attacking The Net — I have written about the mindset ESPN and other tennis broadcasters bring to their coverage of major tournaments. It’s ironic that Fowler also covers tennis, because in many ways, Roger Federer and the small group of tennis superstars (Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, and Maria Sharapova round out the list) are very much to tennis what the SEC is to college football. ESPN and other television networks cover the SEC the way they cover Federer, Nadal, Serena, and Sharapova in tennis.

Here’s the very granular and important point to make: While an executive in a corporate suite won’t tell on-air talent exactly what to say — it’s absurd to think executives hand their talent a list of bullet points the same way telemarketers or political campaign callers are asked to follow a planned script — networks CERTAINLY DO SHAPE how they cover events. We should all be able to see and understand this dynamic at work.

There is a general philosophy at work in a network’s coverage of a tennis tournament. When ESPN showed a live interview with Federer instead of the start of a women’s quarterfinal match with Caroline Wozniacki (who isn’t exactly an unknown name in her sport, but isn’t the global icon Federer is), it made clear its philosophy: We’re here to promote the superstars, because that’s what we feel will get the biggest ratings. The statement wasn’t made by an on-air personality so much as the network itself, and how the production truck put together its coverage of the event. The production truck is where a lot of the action happens. That layer of involvement and creative activity — stuck nicely between the corporate level and the surface product you see courtesy of on-air talent such as Chris Fowler — exists in the shadows. Yet, that’s where the shaping of events and the creation of a fuller broadcast product comes into being.

Are individual commentators handed marching orders? No.

However, the production truck — which conducts production meetings — works with on-air talent to outline the larger contours of a broadcast, going over the points of emphasis and general themes that are going to be talked about. This inevitably and indelibly shapes a broadcast. It’s true in college football, it’s true in tennis, and it’s certainly true in politics as well. The flow and form of live broadcasts involve anchors and pundits who have their own opinions, but the production truck level — especially in sports, more so than in politics — does so much to create the larger boundaries within which on-air talent speaks and reacts. A lot of fans would do well to realize this hidden dynamic of the broadcasting business.

What I’m really getting to is this point: Don’t be so irate about what the individual broadcaster says. Don’t think that Chris Fowler has sold his soul to the journalistic devil. Again, he’s playing the game any employee must play with his employer.

This ESPN-SEC entanglement is not so much a matter of bias (though it certainly involves a lot of it). It is more a matter of saturation, something Bart and Allen both referenced in their answers (albeit in a slightly different direction). The mere act of talking about something so much, to the extent that other topics get shoved to the side, is itself a statement. The details of what one actually says or means (or doesn’t mean) lose centrality at a certain point.

All that matters (this is very familiar to viewers of news shows on American politics, for those who foolishly continue to watch them, believing that there’s something of value in them…) is that people on TV are talking about the subject the production truck or the executives want to talk about. You, the viewer, are watching what the truck or the executives think you want to watch. The content or quality of the opinions — those are secondary concerns, maybe not even concerns at all.

So it goes with Roger Federer in tennis to the exclusion of just about everything else. So it goes with the SEC on ESPN in the world of college football.

Chris Fowler knows this better than anyone else.