On autumn Saturday mornings, while Lee Corso does his headgear shtick and Herbstreit and Desmond talk X’s and O’s, Chris Fowler usually plays the solemn ringleader—keeping the College GameDay crew on-topic and under control. But every once in a while, the 30-year broadcast journalism veteran reminds you he’s more than a moderator.
The weekend before last was one of those times. During his program’s visit to Baton Rouge to cover the LSU-Ole Miss matchup—the fourth SEC campus the GameDay crew had visited in five weeks—Fowler delivered a fervent rebuttal of the mounting speculation that his employer, ESPN, is biased in favor of SEC teams. Toward the end of his monologue, as his co-hosts laughed and attempted to inject a little levity into what was hefty fare for a morning sports broadcast, Fowler let fly his thorniest barb: “I get defensive when stupid, uninformed stuff gets repeated again and again.”
Of course, “stupid” and “uninformed” grabbed all the headlines. But during the more courteous portion of his argument, Fowler made plenty of legitimate points. Here, he reiterates and explains his defense of ESPN’s coverage, and also talks about the broad issues that have college football fans wondering about the future of the sport they love.
PLAYBOY: Considering how much coverage ESPN seems to give the SEC compared to other conferences, why are claims of bias inaccurate?
FOWLER: The SEC has had many of the top-ranked teams for a number of years now, and our coverage is always going to follow the rankings. I mean, it’s just common sense for ESPN to cover the best teams more heavily. Those are the teams people want to watch and hear about. When Michigan and Ohio State were [ranked] one and two, we covered them the same way. It was the same with Texas and USC.
And listen, if you believe ESPN is somehow manipulating or driving the rankings, look at Vegas. Vegas ranks the SEC just as highly as the pollsters do, and I don’t think [Las Vegas] in the business of pumping up the SEC. It’s not good for the sport or for ESPN to have such a dominant conference. Parity is better. Parity is more interesting. ESPN would love to see four teams from four different conferences and different regions at the top, especially for the playoff. As I said on the air, to think that ESPN benefits from having five teams from a 200-mile radius—from this very small geographic area—on top, that’s crazy. But I think recruiting and the resources these schools are giving their football programs are going to keep the SEC at the top or near the top for a long time. That’s great for the SEC, but it’s not great for the sport or for ESPN. But as long as they’re at the top, we’re going to give them a lot of coverage.
PLAYBOY: The NCAA seems to be losing its authority to enforce its regulations and keep schools and players in line. Do you see big changes coming to the relationship between the NCAA and its members?
FOWLER: Right now NCAA enforcement is overmatched and terribly inadequate to police the sport, if that’s even possible, which I’m not sure it is. The power of the NCAA has eroded. Its trust from the public has eroded. There have been so many inconsistencies and frustrating episodes, and people have no faith.
PLAYBOY: Do you think the game is dirtier now than it used to be?
FOWLER: No, I don’t think the sport is dirtier than it has been in past. There’s always been stuff going on outside the rules, even going way back. But the sport wasn’t covered the same way then, so you never heard about it. The NCAA has tried to address the worst, but it’s very difficult for them to do that with the limited enforcement powers they have at their disposal. And there’s so much more coverage and scrutiny these days than there used to be, which makes the inadequacies of the NCAA more apparent. So there’s a lot more media attention and exposure now for illicit dealings, but it hasn’t gotten any easier for the NCAA to prove anything in court. So they look inept. You look at the autograph controversies with [Johnny] Manziel and [Todd] Gurley … if you’re going to try to prove in court that those guys were being paid, that’s going to be very tough for the NCAA, and players know that.
PLAYBOY: Where do you see things headed?
FOWLER: I could see teams from the Power 5 conferences moving away from NCAA enforcement altogether, but I think that would be just as problematic. Nobody’s going to police themselves. NCAA hasn’t done a good job—but at least now there’s an enforcement body in place. There’s at least a deterrent.
PLAYBOY: Could paying players be part of the solution—or at least allowing them to capitalize on their popularity?
FOWLER: I think there’s no doubt that players are being exploited to some extent, and I think players should be allowed to get paid for autographs. But when you talk about something like jersey sales? That’s complicated and very different. Some say these schools should put money away for a player after college based on his jersey sales. But then you’ll see players asking for the ball to get their jersey numbers sold. Offensive linemen will go to running backs and QBs and ask for cash since they’re the reason those guys jerseys are being sold. So I don’t think teams can get into the business of selling jerseys and cutting profit with players.
But yeah, I think players should be rewarded for their commitment. A scholarship is a big deal, but it’s tough to say these guys are being fairly rewarded considering the dollars that colleges and coaches and the NCAA are making. I think the players are right to want more compensation, and I think most of the Power 5 schools could make that work.
Of course that’s going to be tough for some schools and impossible for some conferences. You can’t ask MAC athletic departments to pay players, because they don’t have that kind of cash. But the money flowing in from TV and ticket sales to the Power 5—I think it’s enough. Yes, it’ll put some teams under pressure. But I see things heading that way. It may require a break-off special division for Power 5 conferences, and I think it’ll be unfortunate for other conferences. But I think there’s still room to expand some of the Power 5 to make room for teams that are competitive and could afford to compensate their players. I don’t know how else you can manage things fairly with the way the game’s moving.
PLAYBOY: Head injuries and player safety are obviously huge concerns for many fans of the sport. Are the new targeting rules doing any good, and should college football fans feel conflicted about watching?
FOWLER: You know, trying to keep these kids safe needs to be the highest possible priority, but I don’t think it is anymore. Those who run football are concerned about it, of course. But I think it’s the growing perception of the game as dangerous and how that will hurt the bottom line that drives those concerns. But the issue shouldn’t be driven by money. It should be driven by the fact that protecting these kids is the correct and decent thing to do.
Listen, injuries have always been a part of football. Again, this isn’t a recent phenomenon. Our caring is a recent phenomenon. There were plenty of injuries and even deaths on the field when players were wearing leather helmets and no facemasks, but then players weren’t as fast and strong as they are now. The game became safer with equipment advances, but now it’s becoming a bigger problem because of the size and speed and strength of today’s players, and the speed of the game. All of these things combine to make it more dangerous.
I think the new targeting rules are a good start. Now, I know some old purists will whine that “that’s not football.” But you know what? Tough. At the same time, people who think football is going to go away because of injuries are kidding themselves. The industry is probably too big to fail. But there should be nothing more important that player safety. I think you’re seeing a lot more awareness about concussions, and that’s a good first step. Better helmets will help. But it also has to start with coaches at the lowest levels of the game, and teaching kids to tackle properly to prevent injuries in youth football. All of these things have to happen to keep players safe.