Let me preface what you're about to read by saying I am not a believer in the theory or, perhaps better said, the conspiracy that ESPN disdains West Virginia University athletics. I also don’t think Skip Bayless was on the grassy knoll or that Lou Holtz was part of the faking of the moon landings.
What I do believe with all of my heart is that ESPN not only loves the big name schools, the big-time athletes and the big market teams, but that ESPN has gone from reporting the news to shaping it. And as it relates to this blog, I’m certainly going to draw a parallel involving West Virginia University and something I believe has all the earmarks of ESPN presenting something and believing folks – including the NCAA – should fall forward and bow at their alter of media dominance with no questions asked.
As I slouched in front of the television set New Year’s Day and was in some sort of haze induced by the consumption of too much food and drink over the holiday, I was busy taking in the very competitive Outback Bowl between South Carolina and Michigan. Sometime during that game, a graphic appeared courtesy of our friends at ESPN saying that Michigan’s Denard Robinson was the new NCAA record owner for most rushing yards by a quarterback.
My initial reaction was that the graphic was not only wrong, but typical bush league for ESPN. Later that day, ESPN modified their initial announcement along their crawler at the bottom of the screen and included that Robinson’s record was for “yards gained primarily at quarterback.” Now, my memory is a bit sketchy here as to whether that's exactly what the crawler said, but it was in that vein and included the word “primarily.”
While I was already perturbed about the entire situation, I found it perplexing that the boys from Bristol went from an absolute in their earlier graphic to one less concrete. It was far from a retraction, but it was enough to make me realize that they knew that perhaps they had stepped into a mud pie. (And to be honest, it may have said primarily in that first graphic, but my haze was still in place).
It also told me what I already knew about ESPN and that their modus operandi is to just go ahead and make up rules and records as you go along - as long as it makes for a good story. If it’s wrong, apologize later.
Being as big as ESPN simply means you never have to say you’re sorry. It also means you never have to admit you’re wrong.
As it turns out, ESPN wasn’t wrong, at least not in the eyes of the NCAA. Various media outlets confirmed late Friday that the NCAA was agreeing with ESPN that Denard Robinson was being given the record. And let me be clear the word “given” is my choice. As good as Robinson was as a running quarterback, he did not earn the record and thus should not be awarded it.
This is a vintage hatchet job. One gleefully started by the Worldwide Leader in Sports and followed with equal joy by the governing body of collegiate sports.
Friday’s very late revelation on the NCAA’s ruling was stunning. Here’s the thing. I was stunned ESPN would even print the Denard Robinson graphic since there had been debate leading up to the game about the record and most public and journalistic sentiment I followed on line was that Robinson’s yardage as a running back shouldn't count. Anyone that followed college football this year knows most of Robinson’s yards rushing in the Outback Bowl were as a running back and a large portion of his yardage late this year was as a running back.
Seems pretty cut and dried. If the record is for most yards rushing as a quarterback, then it should be if you’re running with the ball as a quarterback as opposed to running with the ball after getting it from the quarterback. The premise of what constitutes yardage being gained
rushing as a quarterback versus being gained as a running back is something generally understood about the time weight limits are removed as a criteria for playing contact sports.
In other words, if you're going to break these records down, honor them. If not, the NCAA should simply just have a category for most rushing yards and call it a day.
Even with that thought process being applied, I know too well we’re talking about ESPN making its “on-the-air” proclamation about Robinson’s record and the NCAA being asked to rule on it involved two groups who have an ongoing love affair with all that’s big in the world of sports. When it comes to big in college football, Michigan is at the very top of the food chain. Because of that, I contacted WVU Director of Football Communications Mike Montoro Wednesday to see if this was a mistake by the fine folks at ESPN. The answer I got wasn’t exactly music to my ears. Montoro told me the NCAA Statistics group would be the ones to determine if it would be White or Robinson as the record’s owner.
You folks all know about the NCAA? This is the group who takes forever to make a decision, then determines what the right thing to do is, and does the opposite –which they’ve done once again.
Even before the news broke Friday, some part of me not yet jaded, some place deep down inside, kept telling me that common sense would prevail. It wouldn’t.
Can someone who doesn’t know the lyrics to Hail to the Victors tell me a legitimate reason for the NCAA’s ruling? I can assure you it has nothing to do with standard logic. In fact, there’s a complete absence of logic here.
What you have was a pre-determined decision as it related to Denard Robinson and the yardage ESPN deemed necessary for him to break Pat White’s record. What a grand thing that would be to celebrate on an ESPN-televised event. In other words, ESPN had already made up its mind regarding the record and, apparently, that’s good enough for the folks at the NCAA.
You want the Toquinto conspiracy theory on this, well here it is. The NCAA and ESPN know that a quarterback from Michigan nicknamed Shoelace is a whole helluva lot sexier holding that record than some guy named White from West Virginia. And it's not because it's a guy from WVU. It's because it's a guy from Michigan. Don't you know that Bo Schembechler's from Michigan?
Think that’s crazy? Maybe I am. Maybe it's much ado about nothing.
Understand, though, it's ESPN. They have the money. They are the forum. They deliver the message to the public. Because of that, they hold the cards. If they say Denard Robinson is the record holder, that’s the gold standard.
Think about how ESPN spent its entire summer having discussion after discussion on why Dwight Howard needed to be with the Lakers. I’m not talking about the discussion when the Lakers were in the mix of acquiring his services; I’m talking about when it was a done deal that Howard was going to the Nets. For weeks on end, it was one forum after another on why Howard should be on the West Coast and, to make matters worse, they brought in Magic Johnson as the voice of reason. Why David Stern didn't step in and let the Worldwide Leader know that having a Lakers executive (and regardless of his input on Lakers' decision, he's an executive) publicly begging for a player come to LA is unacceptable is beyond me.
The flawed logic of the argument, at least publicly by Magic and other ESPN talking heads was that all great centers play for the Lakers. The real argument is that Howard in Hollywood is much better for the media than Howard in Brooklyn. Period. Thus, ESPN had no problem with the blatant pandering and neither did Stern.
Now, with Howard comfortably placed where ESPN and their crew felt he needed to be all along ESPN has spent the first months of the NBA season with forum after forum as to why the Lakers are struggling, that they’ve reached .500, that they’re back under .500, and that Jack Nicholson’s cuff links aren’t up to speed.
If you don’t see a problem there, you should (and if you’re a Lakers fan you probably don’t care). The Worldwide Leader in Sports is making their show all Lakers all the time. If you’re a free agent in the NBA, where are you going to sign if it comes down between the Lakers and some other team that’s not the Miami Heat?
You know the answer. And it's those sorts of things where ESPN helps shape the sports landscape to the detriment of the landscape they are entrusted by the public to cover.
That's just one example. All of you who follow sports know there are dozens more.
It came full circle with Denard Robinson. ESPN's might and power and unholy and unwritten alliance with the NCAA means that they can determine who gets what. And I can assure you the choice will almost always be the sexy choice. I'm not suggesting that the two parties were on the phone discussing the Pat White rushing record matter. Rather, it's almost as if the NCAA recognized ESPN made the call on this and, well, that's good enough since the agencies share the same brain. The thing I'm completely aware of is that this decision could have been done simply without a wink, nod or even an acknowledgement between the two entities.
The athletically criminal thing is that now that Robinson’s record has become official it robs West Virginia University of a record and, in particular, it robs the person responsible for that record in Pat White. ESPN decided that the record should be considered for a quarterback who “primarily” played there. The NCAA backed it up.
It may not be a big deal. And if it isn't, then simply do as stated above. Just have the one category where there's no need for an interpretation.
I can only wonder what that does for other records on the books. And will the NCAA and their infinitely brilliant statistical group begin scouring other records for potential problems?
Does the all-time leader in sacks by a linebacker get passed up because the number two guy actually played his freshman year at cornerback where he gathered enough sacks to pass up the guy who actually played his entire time at the position the record was named for? I don’t have that answer or even have an idea if it's applicable, but the NCAA damn well should have the answer and know if it's applicable in that situation or any other.
The problem is the NCAA doesn’t care. Neither does ESPN. And the bigger problem is that the two groups tied together as one doesn’t have to care. They answer to no one. Because of that, Pat White was the victim of an on-the-air hit by ESPN on New Year’s Day. And on Friday, ESPN was acquitted by their willing friends at the NCAA.
Editor's Note: All photos of Patrick White Courtesy of West Virginia University Sports Communications Department. Cover and bottom photo taken by Bill Amatucci Sr.