Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh looks on from the sidelines during the Wolverines' game against Indiana on Oct. 14, 2023. Credit: USA TODAY

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A couple weeks ago in this space we asked why the Michigan sign-stealing scandal hadn’t become a bigger story. Thankfully, the entirety of sports media was apparently reading as coverage has exploded as the scandal has had so many layers, tangents, and implications for Michigan, the Big Ten, and college football at large. And as the situation has developed, a curious trend has emerged.

There has been a developing narrative that ESPN has by and large been very critical of the Wolverines while voices at Fox have preached patience and understanding. Even prominent Michigan grads have threatened Disney boycotts because of ESPN’s coverage. It’s understandable why fans and observers might believe in such trends – Fox has a media rights relationship with the Big Ten. ESPN does not.

Compare the reaction to Jim Harbaugh labeling Michigan “America’s Team,” which sounds insane considering the serious cheating allegations against the program. At ESPN, Paul Finebaum and Shannon Sharpe came out against it. At Fox, Colin Cowherd loved it.

Major personalities at ESPN like Stephen A. Smith and Pat McAfee haven’t held back about the program. Meanwhile, college football voices like Joel Klatt and Tim Brando have preached “due process” which sounds a lot like Wolverine talking points.

Because of the massive amounts of rights fees attached to conference relationships with networks, there are always questions when it comes to what narratives get pushed where. When there’s a financial benefit to ESPN propping up the SEC or Fox with the Big Ten, there should be deserved skepticism around the analysis… especially in a sport where subjectivity matters so much. Whatever Fox says about the Eagles versus whatever CBS says about the Chiefs has no tangible impact on the NFL. But that’s the beauty of deciding a playoff system based solely on the field and not by polls and committees.

So is there something larger at play here? Has the scandal become the latest volleyball bouncing back and forth between corporate interests? Is it now an ESPN-Fox issue or even a culture war issue?

While college football tribalism is reaching record levels, it’s hard to imagine an edict coming down from either network to take a side, at least at this point. Do we really think Shannon Sharpe or Pat McAfee is going on air and taking into account ESPN’s lack of a rights deal with the Big Ten? If so, why would the network still trot Desmond Howard out with his maize and blue pom poms? And from the Fox side, yes it helps them for Michigan to do well, but it’s the Big Ten they’re in a relationship with, not just the Wolverines. And we know how strongly the conference feels about the allegations.

As complex as this still-evolving story is, it surely can’t be as simple as ESPN vs. Fox or red vs. blue. Because as wild a ride as we’ve been on so far, we’re not even started yet.

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