No network has a bigger sports presence than ESPN. Conversely, no outlet finds itself in more thorny situations because ESPN wants to be both a journalistic center and a partner with various sports networks. That raises perennial conflict-of-interest problems, because inevitably something will happen that requires a more objective, potentially embarrassing approach than a league would prefer, or a commentator or guest will say something on air, in print or online that can be easily create a controversy.

The latter happened last week when longtime Democratic Party strategist and rabid LSU sports fan James Carville was a guest on ESPN’s showcase Saturday show “College GameDay.” While the program is equal parts show business spectacle and information/news vehicle, the hosts like to give guests free reign to say whatever they please. But Carville took things far beyond the realm of entertaining comment with statements that directly accused the SEC of favoring Alabama in its officiating policies.

ESPN should have had an inkling of what was coming because Carville had already written a stinging op-ed on October 21 that accused the SEC of collusion with the Crimson Tide. “Tennessee’s best defensive player couldn’t play against Alabama because of the SEC,” Carville said. “Missouri’s best defensive player couldn’t play against Alabama because the SEC kicked him out. A&M’s best defensive player couldn’t play against because Alabama because he was taken out, and now the best defensive player in the conference (LSU’s top linebacker) is not going to play in the first half for nothing. For nothing.”

The problem with all the situations Carville cited is a case can be made either way. Tennessee cornerback Alontae Taylor WAS ejected against Alabama for targeting. Missouri’s Terez Hall WAS also ejected against Alabama for targeting, as was Texas A&M’s Donovan Wilson. But there was and still is NO EVIDENCE any game official deliberately tried to aid Alabama, or that there was any directive from the league office dictating any call in any game go Alabama’s way.

Caught by surprise, ESPN went into full apology mode, largely because Carville verbally zoomed past the point of just being a rabid booster.  “We have an apology to make on behalf of ESPN,” ESPN host Chris Cotter said. “While appearing as a guest on College GameDay earlier today, James Carville offered his thoughts on SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. As we regularly demonstrate here on ESPN, diverse opinions are encouraged, however these actions were over the top, and we’d like to apologize to Commissioner Sankey for that.”

While a Carville defender could say he was merely engaging in deliberate exaggeration and gamesmanship, and ESPN was overreacting, it’s probable that if ESPN wasn’t in partnership with the SEC through the SEC Network all Carville’s rhetoric would have been ignored. But they weren’t taking any chances on offending one of their partners, and that’s where the real problem lies.

ESPN’s various partners range from the NBA and NFL to the NCAA, MLS, the PGA, MLB, even MMA and the PBA.  But sports like hockey, auto racing and track & field, where there’s no partnership, neither get the same degree of coverage, nor are as protected from “hot take” rips by commentators and guests. Nor is the network shy about exposing the dirty laundry in their closets. 

For the most part, ESPN does a quality job in both its game/news coverage and journalism. Their “30 for 30” documentary series and their weekday sports expose show “Behind The Lines,” for example,  are both excellent. “The Jump” doesn’t hesitate to criticize coaches, players or general managers, and of course “First Take” is the epitome of the “hot take” culture. 

However, it remains a constant struggle to walk that narrow line between advocacy and objective coverage, and the Carville incident is another reminder of how thin that line can be.