ESPN's Coverage of Joe Paterno: One Disgrace Leads to Another

John ZieglerContributor INovember 10, 2011

STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 10: A news van is flipped over as students and those in the community fill the streets and react after football head coach Joe Paterno was fired during the Penn State Board of Trustees Press Conference, in downtown Penn State, in the early morning hours of November 10, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania. Paterno and Spanier have lost their positions amid allegations that former former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was involved with child sex abuse.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Despite what you may have heard from the vast majority of the sports media, we still don’t know for sure what exactly, if anything, Joe Paterno actually did or didn’t do in order to suddenly get fired after 61 years of incredible service to a university he almost literally built.

That isn’t my assessment as someone who grew up as a fan of the guy. That is the clear admission of John Surma, who voted for and publicly announced (in one of the most arrogant and tone-deaf press conferences in memory) that the legend of JoePa was officially finished.

Amazingly, after revealing that the graduate assistant who allegedly witnessed Jerry Sandusky raping a young boy back in 2002 (and according to Paterno’s grand jury testimony, soft pedaled his description of the event to the head coach) and did nothing more than what Paterno did, was still employed by Penn State, Surma refused to explain the exact cause of Paterno’s firing.

Instead, he only said it was in the “best interest” of the university. When questioned as to whether this was a situation where the board simply had more information about what Paterno knew about the scandal than the public, Surma openly admitted (in an incredibly dismissive manner) that this was not the case.

To be clear, the conclusion may have been correct. But why exactly was it in the “best interest” of Penn State to unceremoniously fire the man who put them on the map on the very day he had already announced that he would retire at the end of the year?

It was clearly because the story had become far too big to have hanging around the program for at least four more games (assuming they still want to go to a bowl game after getting crushed in their last three games, which they will be). This exact rationale for the decision to fire Paterno was even confirmed by an unnamed trustee to The Morning Call.

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There is no doubt that the media circus was not going away as long as Paterno was still, even as figurehead, technically at the helm.

 And why was that? It is because ESPN—which now has a virtual monopoly of sports news coverage—had decided that this was the biggest sports story of the decade and that Joe Paterno was the key figure.

For the past three days, ESPN has basically blown out its normal broadcasting schedule to go with virtual wall-to-wall coverage of this scandal. Almost all of that coverage has been focused on Paterno and whether he could possibly continue as the head coach.

It would be impossible to know for sure, but it is quite plausible that Paterno’s name was mentioned at least 50 times for every one of Sandusky's, and the percentages were easily even more out of proportion when it came to video presence.

Even ESPN’s own Rece Davis sheepishly mentioned the massive disparity during the coverage of last night’s “riots” on campus (I sure hope the board of trustees is happy that they traded uncomfortable pictures of Paterno being celebrated on Saturday for those of the campus uprising).

I have no doubt that a significant percentage of Americans mistakenly believe that Paterno was fired for having been a child molester.

I want to make clear that if Paterno knew as much as he could/should have known and truly did nothing more than is currently known about his efforts to stop Sandusky’s reign of terror, then he is getting off easy. But, as is occasionally mentioned even on ESPN, we simply don’t know that yet.

But that hasn’t stopped virtually every ESPN commentator from prematurely calling for Paterno’s head (when you have so much time to fill you need to keep moving the story along, no time to let the wheels of justice turn!) during their tidal wave of endless live coverage.

ESPN has simply not been remotely fair or objective in their coverage of this story, and it is increasingly obvious that they had a profound impact on the board of trustees deciding that it was in Penn State’s “best interest” to simply end it, regardless of the known facts.

Watching their live coverage of the announcement of the firing and the student demonstrations that followed reminded me of MSNBC’s reporting of a Republican convention.

Steve Levy and Stuart Scott were literally dumbfounded that anyone could possibly be publicly supporting Joe Paterno (hadn’t they heard? ESPN had already decided he needed to go!) and they bent over backwards to diminish the credibility of the student’s fury.

At one point, after, not coincidentally, a local TV news van was toppled over and reports surfaced of students shouting “F--k the media!,” Scott and Levy asked their on-the-scene reporter in bewilderment why their business had become such a focus of rage.

The reporter responded that he thought it is was just a case of misplaced anger and a “blaming the messenger.”

The reality is that ESPN is not only largely responsible for why Penn State felt they had to fire Paterno, but they also should (but because of their monopoly, they won’t) share at least some responsibility for why Sandusky was able to get away with his alleged crimes for so long.

Thanks in part to the shoddy reporting on this case, most people don’t seem to realize that this story didn’t just suddenly emerge out of nowhere.

Allegations against Sandusky have been public for years and yet, despite the fact that ESPN has insisted all week that this is the biggest story to maybe ever hit college sports, I don’t recall ESPN ever bothering to devote any significant time or resources to the long-emerging scandal.

It was only after a grand jury, which had been in existence for years, finally handed down indictments (including to an Athletic Director who is still somehow technically employed by Penn State) during a time period when baseball is over and the NBA is in a lockout, that they suddenly decided that this story would make fantastic programming for a week.

Here is where Paterno’s own legend/celebrity ended up causing his undoing.

If he had just been a normal college coach, the wall-to-wall coverage would never have been able to sustain itself, because the viewer interest simply wouldn’t have been there.

Can you possibly imagine ESPN spending a full week on whether the coach at Missouri had done more than legally required to stop a guy who hadn’t coached there in 12 years from committing horrible crimes no one likes to talk about? After one day of dismal ratings, ESPN would have immediately moved on.

Then of course there is the old media fallback explanation of “hypocrisy” (used most often to justify more coverage of Republican sex scandals than the Democratic variety). Paterno, the reasoning goes, needed to be held to a higher standard because we thought he was so much better than everyone else in this rotten business.

It all resulted in a perfect media storm of selfishness and disgrace. One that resulted in the worst ending to a real-life fairy tale in my lifetime and which quite possibly will provoke Paterno’s eventual death.

When that inevitably happens, I won’t be holding my breath for ESPN, the self-appointed moral arbiter of sports (when convenient for their bottom line) to take any of the same type of responsibility for his destruction as they rushed to put on Paterno’s for someone else’s heinous crimes.

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