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Broadcasters must tread a fine line when covering their alma maters
In March 11, 2011, The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch columnist Bob Hunter dropped the news — Kirk Herbstreit was leaving Ohio and relocating his family to Nashville. The guy who any serious college football fan knew played quarterback at Ohio State and still contained much love for his Buckeyes found that living in Columbus was no longer bearable.
There was his growing celebrity as ESPN’s face of college football, but something else, too. It turns out that some fans — and this does not just apply to one isolated football program — really are so fanatical about their team they cross over that line separating passion and reason.
To Herbstreit, who like his father before him had been an Ohio State captain, “80 to 90 percent” of fans were great. But he told Hunter: “It’s the vocal minority that make it rough. They probably represent only five to 10 percent of the fan base, but they are relentless.”
This, in an essential way, goes against how we think of sports fandom and root, root, rooting for the home team. It would seem to follow that if there was one place where a nationally known commentator could exist comfortably, it would be among those of his own tribe.
To Christian End, a psychology research professor in Ohio whose primary work involves the brains and metaphorical hearts of sports fans, this parable of the prodigal sports commentator actually makes perfect sense. And lest fans of other college football franchises reach for a stone to cast at fans of Ohio State, know that the available research says we all, as sports fans, are susceptible to the same sort of irrational behavior on behalf of the old alma mater.
End, a professor at Xavier (and huge Musketeer hoops fan), tells about a study done in 1992 — the same year Herbstreit completed 46 passes for 271 yards in a 13–13 tie with Michigan — that tested just how much fans value loyalty and punish any hint of disloyalty.
People were asked to read different articles about their favorite team — some described a tight, thrilling victory by their favorite team and others described a tight, crushing loss by their favorite team. Some of these people were huge fans of the team, some were not. Key to the study was this — some people were told the author was “loyal,” some were told the author was “disloyal.”
The researchers noticed two things above all else. The most positive reactions came from big fans of the winning team reading an article by an author described as loyal to the winning team. The most negative reactions came from those big fans of the losing team reading an article by an author described as “disloyal” to the losing team.
“We do know that fans highly value loyalty,” End says. “That is central to that identity to a sports fan, this sense of, ‘I will be loyal, through thick and thin.’”
If criticism comes from another ESPN analyst, like say a certain former Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan, Buckeye fans might resent it but not with the same intensity they would reserve for a critic with actual Ohio State connections.
“You can see how they might think, ‘Desmond Howard, he’s the Michigan guy, but I don’t expect that from my own,’” End says.
Fill in the blank with a college broadcaster and the same dynamic could apply — David Pollack talking about the Georgia Bulldogs (or the Florida Gators), Todd Blackledge about Penn State (or Pitt).
End tells about one of the most famous psychological studies connected to sports, which dates back to 1951. Titled simply: “They Saw A Game,” it involved a Thanksgiving week college football clash between Dartmouth and Princeton, back when Ivy League football mattered so much that Time magazine featured the Princeton star, Dick Kazmaier, on its cover.
After a game that became famous at the time for its brutality — Kazmaier left the game with a broken nose and concussion, Dartmouth’s star had his leg broken — researchers questioned fans of both teams about what they saw. Later, they also showed fans of each side a replay of the game on film. What they found was at the time seen as a psychological breakthrough: Princeton fans claimed many more penalties and dirty plays were committed by Dartmouth and Dartmouth fans claimed just the opposite.
Writing in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology (which may or may not tell you something about us sports fans), the researchers came to the conclusion that “the game actually was many different games,” and what fans chose to notice and remember differed based on their own connections to the competing schools, according to who they wanted to win.
End says the more broadcasters and journalists are aware of that psychological truth, the better equipped they are to guard against subconsciously projecting bias.
CBS lead basketball analyst Clark Kellogg, another Ohio State alum, seemed to get that when explaining his approach to Sports Illustrated’s media columnist Richard Deitsch before last year’s NCAA Tournament: “I have drank and swallowed the Kool-Aid. I’m Scarlet and Gray. There is no denying that. I’m a Buckeye fan, and we all are fans of certain teams and programs and particularly our alma mater. When calling a game, I am representing CBS and Turner and my professionalism has to rise above where my personal interests lie. Whether people accept or acknowledge that fairly, I cannot control.”
When scandal strikes
On the other end of this spectrum, consider a young sportswriter named Mark Viera, Penn State Class of 2009. Last fall he found himself caught in what he described as “a maelstrom” of events that rocked the proud football program and the legendary coach Viera had covered as an undergraduate just a few years earlier.
Viera helped The New York Times report the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal, a task made somewhat less difficult by two things. One, Viera could introduce himself as a Penn State graduate and win the trust of people weary and skeptical of the media hordes that had descended on Happy Valley. Also, Viera says, he had never become a Nittany Lion fan.
“I did not have those heartstring affections that many people do,” he said. “I never developed this rah-rah affinity for Penn State football.”
That helped Viera, but, as evidenced in the many thoughtful pieces written by media members with Penn State ties, in some cases covering the scandal meant grappling with personal affections that had built up over many years. Malcolm Moran, a Penn State professor who for three decades covered college sports for the Times, Chicago Tribune and USA Today, saw some of the school’s finest budding journalists forced to reconcile their still developing sense of professional duty with their embedded sense of loyalty. “Several students had conversations with me on the verge of tears with the thought that their work might be contributing to the downfall of the program,” Moran says. “There was enormous emotion.”
Viera said at times he found longtime university supporters and employees reaching out privately to offer support and encouragement. At some level, even those with the strongest feelings about the Nittany Lion program wanted the truth to come out, whatever the consequences.
Covering the beat
Brett McMurphy is CBSSports.com’s national football writer and a member of the Football Writers Association of America’s board of directors. The issue of objectivity is so important to him that he pays close attention to the colors he wears covering games.
When he covered the University of South Florida for The Tampa Tribune, athletic department officials often implored him to “be positive,” an entreaty most beat writers hear in some form many times every season. When McMurphy reported in 2009 that former coach Jim Leavitt had hit a player, one booster in particular told him he should not have dwelled on that “negative” news. But that same booster, after Leavitt was fired in part because of the incident, asked McMurphy for his ring size because he said Skip Holtz would lead the program to a Big East title.
McMurphy is himself an Oklahoma State graduate, and as a national correspondent, he has been tasked with covering the program’s rise to national prominence. After an article last year detailing the program’s past struggles, in which he pointed out the old condescending “Okie State” term had at times fit the program, some fans suggested he was not positive enough.
So he replied, in part, by pointing out as an alum he had a unique perspective. But as might have been predicted by the sports fan psychologists — or by Kirk Herbstreit himself — that may have only served to anger the most partisan of fans even more.
Root, root ... for the story
Bob Kesling has been paid to observe college sports in general and his alma mater Tennessee Vols in particular from many vantage points.
For years, he was sports anchor for Knoxville’s NBC affiliate, covering the Vols as journalist first. Later he became involved with the regional broadcasts of Southeastern Conference football and basketball games, as a play-by-play announcer. In 1999, he succeeded the legendary John Ward as the radio voice for the Vols.
One thing has remained constant, Kesling says — he always cheers for a good story to emerge.
“Most announcers, they just want a good game — there’s nothing worse than a 54–7 game in football, I don’t care who is winning,” Kesling says.
And when he’s at his best, Kesling is following advice from mentors like Ward and Lindsey Nelson, a UT graduate and broadcast sports pioneer. Like Ward, he considers his first duty to be a reporter. And Nelson always told him, “Tell the story. You are not the story. The story is the story.”
Wes Durham, who has done play-by-play for Georgia Tech now for nearly two decades, has understood that since he was a teenager and his father, Woody, was laying out the story to North Carolina fans as the radio voice of the Tar Heels.
Durham says he knows some Tech fans may wish he came across as more ardently “a homer,” in part because so many fans in Georgia well remember the unabashed fan-in-the-booth persona of longtime Georgia announcer Larry Munson. That’s just not Durham’s style.
The key to connecting reliably with fans, he believes, is just that — be reliable, be consistent, be real. His father told him that he aimed for accuracy but expected anyone listening to understand he called games through “light-blue-tinted glasses.”
“You can dissect how the relationship between the announcer and the fan base works, but they want you to be real — and fans know real,” Durham says.
Consider, as one final example, an exchange on one of the newest of media platforms, Twitter, where “being real” is greatly valued. Desmond Howard had asked his followers, on Easter Sunday in 2011, how they judged a person’s character, and an Ohio State fan snarked that if you are “from Ohio and went to mich” it said a lot.
“Says I made a GREAT decision,” Howard offered. At which point Herbstreit jumped into the fray and offered, “even on easter they don’t take a break. Haha!”
But by the end of the exchange, the Ohio State fan offered the two rivals-turned-colleagues the highest of praise: “College Gameday is the best show on tv. Luv it.”
Being real. Being transparent. Being reliable: It may not please all of the fans all of the time, but for analysts, play-by-play guys and sportswriters, that is usually a winning game plan.
— by Zack McMillin
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