If you don’t frequent Twitter, you might be unaware that there is an absolute war going on between Tennessee fans and Arkansas fans. And, last night, ESPN got sucked into that war in a disastrous way, claiming that a Tennessee star player was taking performance enhancing drugs and speculating that the rest of the team could be doing the same.
The war between the Vols and the Hogs is mostly being waged by Arkansas fans. While Tennessee fans have been enjoying their baseball team’s resounding success — this Vols team might solidify itself as the best college baseball team in history if it wins the national championship — they’ve been living rent-free in the heads of Arkansas fans.
Arkansas, you see, is one of the SEC’s baseball blue bloods. So is Vanderbilt. Tennessee is viewed (wrongly, if you’re familiar with the program’s past) as being the new kid on the block. And not just any new kid, but the brash, loud-mouthed new kid. Vols coach Tony Vitello and his players make up the kind of team that you either love or hate. There’s not much room for middle ground. So if you’re another SEC team that’s suddenly been supplanted by this Tennessee team, you obviously hate them.
That brings us to Friday night’s shenanigans. Shortly before the start of the Vols’ game against Alabama State to open NCAA tournament play in Knoxville, UT announced that standout catcher Evan Russell would not be available for Friday’s game, and that Vitello would address his status after the game.
It was a bit of a weird way to announce that a starter would be unavailable, the sort of statement that lends itself to speculation. And Twitter did what Twitter does best: Speculate.
Arkansas and Vanderbilt fans loved it. Enter a poseur who calls himself David Marts. He’s an Arkansas fan, who apparently loves to play the part of Twitter troll. So, posing as a Tennessee fan, he tweeted this:
Keep in mind that this Marts character doesn’t have any journalistic credibility, nor does he claim to have. But that didn’t stop one of ESPN’s top college baseball analysts from stepping in it…big-time. During a completely different game, a regional between Oklahoma State and Missouri State, Troy Eklund said this during the live broadcast:
Eklund said: “It was pretty crazy. He failed a drug test. So Evan Russell is suspended for the rest of the season. So Tennessee is going to have the whole rest of the team tested tomorrow, or the NCAA is. So it’s going to be interesting to see if that’s just a one player thing or if it’s going to be throughout that entire program. Performance-enhancing drugs is what it was said. That’s a big blow to the Vols.”
Except that isn’t at all true. By the time Eklund was uttering those remarks, Vitello had already said in his postgame press conference in Knoxville that it was a medical issue that kept Russell out of the game against Alabama State. Eklund’s broadcast partner remarked on that, but acted skeptical. However, the PED story was thoroughly debunked by Saturday morning. Russell has been cleared to play in the Vols’ Saturday game, and Tennessee issued a statement:
“Evan Russell’s absence last night had nothing to do with any violation of team, NCAA or SEC rules. We have been in contact with ESPN and they are aware of the situation regarding last night’s comments made on their broadcast. ESPN is handling the situation and we are expecting a public apology from them later today.”
Vols athletic director Danny White also said this on Twitter:
“Thrilled to update that Evan Russell is feeling better and back with the team. Sad that over the last 24 hours this young man has had to endure speculation and criticism. In the future I hope that the media will prioritize the health of our student-athletes over unfounded rumors.”
It goes without saying that Eklund’s remarks were an egregious mistake. He took a tweet from a guy with a very small Twitter presence and ran with it as truth, repeating it on a live broadcast as if it were fact. But he compounded his mistake with his speculation: “It’s going to be interesting to see if that’s just a one player thing or if it’s going to be throughout that entire program.” That is simply inexcusable. You can’t just chalk that up as a mistake, apologize, and let it ride. There has to be repercussions.
You might be wondering why a guy like Eklund, who is a reputable college baseball commentator, would make such a poor rush to judgment. Well, there’s this: He is a former Arkansas player. It looks like he has gotten sucked into the whole Tennessee vs. Arkansas brouhaha and was a little too anxious for a false report about Tennessee to be true.
It should go without saying that Eklund should be suspended by ESPN for the remainder of the season.
Update: Eklund apologizes…