The ongoing waves of NCAA conference expansion and realignment have generally been all about football, television revenues and schools doing what's in their own best interests. Thus, it's not surprising that there are growing rumours that Florida State may attempt to head to the Big 12 following the new ACC television contract, which may be for a lot of money ($3.6 billion) over a lot of years (15), but is only just above the Big East in terms of dollars per school per year. The side that's in the most awkward position here isn't Florida State, the ACC or the Big 12, though, but rather ESPN, which is up to its nose in this mess from three perspectives: as the primary ACC broadcaster, as the primary Big 12 broadcaster and as a journalistic entity covering college football. There's substantial incentive for ESPN to try and work the situation to its own advantage, and even if the network doesn't, it could still take a perception hit.
Despite their involvement on multiple sides of the equation, this may not be a zero-sum game for ESPN. As Cork Gaines wrote over at Business Insider, this could turn out very well for the network, as it would give their Big 12 content a presence in several massive Florida TV markets without removing all of the interest in their ACC content. From a TV perspective, actually, there are substantial advantages to conferences with a wider geographical footprint, as that presumably would increase regional interest in a variety of conferences. The conferences and schools involved are quite aware of the television implications, too; consider how Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo told The Boston Globe this fall (before quickly taking it back) that "TV - ESPN - is the one who told us what to do" on the ACC's own expansion. And there's the rub: even if ESPN remains the model of ethics in this situation, waiting for the conferences involved to work things out themselves while impartially reporting on expansion, will anyone believe that the network wasn't involved in the inner workings in some way?
This is far from the first time accusations of conflicts of interest have sprung up around Bristol, as the Craig James, Bruce Feldman, Magic Johnson and NHL coverage stories (just to name a few) reveal, and it's easy to see why they keep arising. ESPN is so big at the moment that there will inevitably be tensions between its duty as a game broadcaster and its duty to report on sports. However, a situation like this where ESPN is torn three ways is particularly notable, and it will be difficult for the network to come out of it looking good. Even the most impartial reporting on the subject from the Worldwide Leader will receive extra scrutiny from many looking to unravel ESPN's motives (keep in mind that Bristol's already had to issue a press release giving their side of the ACC contract deal following initial criticism, a rare step), and if Florida State does leave for another conference, it's hard to see the remaining schools following an "ESPN giveth and ESPN taketh away" style of serenity.
Does that mean the network should say 'Forget it' and just start doing what's best for themselves without regard to ethics, along the lines of how most schools have acted during this wave of conference expansion? From this corner, the answer's no. There's still substantial incentive for ESPN to keep as much of its credibility as possible, both as a journalistic outlet and as a conference broadcast partner, and there's a notable difference between widespread grumbling and skepticism and actual proof of network shenanigans. If they can keep their hands as clean as possible during this process, stay out of the negotations until the schools and conferences work things out themselves and fairly and accurately report on what's going on, that may preserve a considerable amount of their credibility on all fronts. Even perfect behaviour won't be enough to silence all the questions in a situation as full of conflicts of interest as this one, though.