ESPN gets higher grade for PSU coverage

This past fall, the Poynter Review Project was critical of ESPN’s early coverage of the scandal at Penn State, which we found slow, scattershot and tone deaf, too often giving short shrift to the terrible truth that children had been sexually abused.

So last Thursday, when former FBI director Louis Freeh and his team released a report summarizing their eight-month inquiry into Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of children and Penn State’s failures to prevent it, we hoped ESPN would do a better job. In our view, this time around, ESPN did -- with one notable exception.

On the TV side, "SportsCenter" provided thorough and substantial coverage throughout the morning and early afternoon, showing Freeh’s news conference live and then mixing new segments with archived ones. Reporter Jeremy Schaap parsed the lengthy report quickly and ably, and he was similarly sharp whether he was discussing what would come next or interviewing legal experts and lawyers. (On the ESPN.com side, Don Van Natta Jr. also did superb work -- his analysis of the Freeh report was vivid and unsparing, one of the best we read anywhere.)

Schaap’s later reports were also hard-hitting and compelling -- for example, in a Friday summation of the week’s developments, he noted that “only the most sycophantic dead-enders now would remain in [late coach Joe] Paterno’s corner.” And Schaap ended that report by examining the performance of Penn State’s Board of Trustees and noting that “the issue was never whether the young students at Penn State were put in harm’s way -- it was about those much younger and more vulnerable.”

That was one of the things we found most heartening. Whereas, in its November coverage, Sandusky’s victims too often were shoved aside by lesser concerns, ESPN rarely forgot them in its reporting last week. One of Thursday’s more searing interviews featured former Washington Redskin-turned-ESPN analyst Mark May, who was properly outraged at the callous indifference to Sandusky’s victims shown by key Penn State officials. That afternoon, Tom Rinaldi interviewed Joe Paterno’s son Jay, and his most pointed questions -- which largely followed the advice of ESPN interviewing guru John Sawatsky -- concerned what the younger Paterno had to say to the families of the victims. Rinaldi closed the interview by noting that Thursday was part of “a catalog of difficult days that are impossible to comprehend” for those families.

As for that notable exception, once again we thought analyst and Penn State alum Matt Millen was miscast. His difficulty coming to grips with the implications of the Freeh report for Paterno’s legacy and Penn State’s culture was painful to watch. And we saw it often: Millen made multiple appearances on "SportsCenter," which kept reairing one particularly awkward segment Thursday afternoon, and he also appeared on "Mike & Mike" and "Outside the Lines."

Although acknowledging that Paterno had flaws and made mistakes, Millen repeatedly tried to deflect blame to former Penn State president Graham Spanier, and he struggled to articulate his points. This clip offers a representative sample: “[Paterno] was in charge of his particular deal. But he had people above him. And I don’t care what decision you make, you’re under the org chart. The guy at the top, he pulls the string every time.”

Media critics and viewers have pilloried Millen, but we think ESPN’s producers should bear a substantial part of the blame for what went wrong. For openers, Millen is too close to the subject to offer clear-eyed analysis. The Freeh report helped show us that Penn State’s culture of reverence for its football program and for Paterno himself were gross distortions of a star system that ultimately allowed the rape of children to continue. Insider analysis that can help us understand how that happened would be helpful, but too often Millen gave us more examples of the perils of such devotion.

Moreover, it seems Millen wasn’t given ample time to digest the report’s findings before being asked to analyze them on show after show. Millen’s visit to the "Mike & Mike" studio was revealing. It came between "SportsCenter" appearances, and Millen told guest hosts Adnan Virk and Buster Olney that he was reading the Freeh report for the first time, and wound up reacting live to Virk’s recitation of the key points. The analyst was going through the “Bristol car wash,” jumping from ESPN show to show over several hours. That can be exhausting for an athlete with relatively straightforward talking points at hand, so it must have been far harder for a man struggling to come to grips with evidence that a man he had deeply admired had lied and failed to protect children from a sexual predator.

Given how close Millen is to Penn State, for him to be useful, someone at ESPN needed to do more to help him prepare -- he needed time to read the report and needed help assessing what he knows about the good and bad of building a culture around a successful college football program.

We have hopes that Millen will get such help next time -- in a prepared statement released Saturday afternoon, ESPN said that "Matt played at Penn State and was also interviewed for the Freeh Report and as a result we thought he had a unique perspective. While he expressed disappointment in his former coach and said Joe Paterno bears responsibility, he also admitted to having a hard time processing the report. That's understandable. In hindsight, having Matt in a featured role put him in a tough spot."

For an example of the valuable perspective Millen can bring, he did well in a discussion with college football reporter Joe Schad about the culture of reverence for football programs. Millen said that culture exists in all strong programs and that it is necessary to their success, arguing that what was significant was the poor decisions made in light of that.

That was a worthy argument to have, and one of a number of places where we were encouraged to see ESPN wrestle with larger questions about sports and our society.

In the early going, some of the sharpest such questions were asked online. Grantland.com's Michael Weinreb -- whose first-person take on growing up in Happy Valley was a standout of ESPN’s November coverage -- wrote eloquently about his agony over Sandusky’s victims and what he saw as the failure of the Penn State “notion that football can elevate a university rather than weigh it down.” ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach argued that the NCAA must penalize Penn State, arguing that “if a massive cover-up of a child rapist's disgusting actions isn't a major violation, I'm not sure anything else is.”

And Ian O’Connor of ESPNNewYork.com went after the culture of Penn State in a searing piece, highlighted by this quote from the attorney for one of Sandusky’s victims: "I'm a sports junkie as much as anybody, but these universities are supposed to be designed to bring young men and women into the world of business and education, and to instill good morals and ethics and virtues in people. Just being whores to athletics is so wrong."

We hope we’ll see more such unflinching takes on the culture of college athletics. But most of all, we hope ESPN will continue to talk about and speak for the children who are at the heartbreaking center of this story. We’d like to see more calls to arms like this from ESPN.com's Howard Bryant, and more explanations of the damage done by sexual abuse and how all of us can prevent it.

In one of the columns we thought was strongest, Jane McManus of espnW spoke with Chris Anderson, the executive director of MaleSurvivor, a support group for men who were abused as children. Anderson called Jay Paterno’s statement to Sandusky’s victims “the start of a conversation” and told McManus that “we're only just beginning to be at a place where we can start talking about this as a culture."

That conversation should accelerate. Child sex abuse is a searing problem for our society: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused by the time they reach age 18. A sizable portion of the suffering is caused by coaches, mentors and other authority figures who lure, groom and ultimately assault their victims through sports leagues and youth programs -- people like Jerry Sandusky. That’s not an indictment of sports any more than pedophile priests are an indictment of organized religion. But sports and organized religion pose the same obstacles: the instinct for the powerful to protect themselves at the expense of the vulnerable, and for institutions to defend themselves at the expense of people.

Sports are our secular religion. Because of that, ESPN has the opportunity -- we would argue the obligation -- to expose the dark side of that religion.

After all, ESPN has done admirable work confronting the sexual abuse of children before -- on "Outside the Lines" and in ESPN the Magazine and in this ESPN.com takeout story, to cite a few examples. In the best of its Penn State coverage last week, it did so again. Now, it is our hope that the conversation will continue, with ESPN speaking loudly, passionately and angrily on behalf of those who too often are voiceless. (This Elizabeth Merrill story from Wednesday is a nice start.)

ESPN sits at the center of a national culture that worships sports. It makes money -- a lot of money -- from this universal diversion, and it has more access and insight accumulated under one umbrella than the NCAA itself. We think that adds up to both an obligation and an opportunity for ESPN to devote its abundant talent and resources to sustained and substantial work on the issue of child sexual abuse.