Gene DeFilippo backpedaled quickly — an old quarterback executing one more scramble — after suggesting last month that one of the most stunning shifts in the recent wave of realignment in college sports had been scripted by ESPN.
The Boston College athletics director apologized, saying he'd misspoken when he told The Boston Globe that the cable television titan "told us what to do" before the Atlantic Coast Conference chose Pittsburgh and Syracuse as new members, plundering the neighboring Big East.
His retreat did little to quell conspiracy theories. Questions continue to bubble about whether ESPN — the 32-year-old network that has become a defining force in sports and the culture around them — has been a key behind-the-scenes player at a time of high-profile realignment in college sports. Fueled largely by schools seeking more money and security in their conference arrangements, the scramble has touched at least a half-dozen leagues and threatened several traditional rivalries.
For all that ESPN has lent to the growth of major-college athletics — through on-air exposure and with rights-fees payouts that schools have fed into stadium improvements, luxurious locker rooms and huge contracts for top coaches — there's an undercurrent of concern about the influence of the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports.
It's not just that its tentacles are everywhere: They're everywhere at once.
As a TV rights holder, ESPN is a business partner to a wide array of conferences and schools (its total college outlay will average more than $700 million annually by next year).
And as a leading broadcast, print and online news outlet, ESPN also reports the news it's often a party to making.
"We've created … I was going to say a blurry line, but I don't think there is any line anymore as to who's in charge," says Andy Geiger, a former athletics director at Ohio State University.
"We're doing business with an entertainment company whose only way of surviving involves the number of eyeballs watching the screen," he says. "That is the driving force in what I see as all the decisions being made."