Covering Penn State an unenviable task

It’s difficult to imagine a more no-win scenario than what ESPN faced covering Penn State’s first game after the horrible scandal that cost Joe Paterno his job as head coach, sullied his legacy and triggered local riots. Focus squarely on the Nebraska game and risk looking myopic. Dwell on the allegations and wind up talking more about child sex abuse than football.

As long as the game against Nebraska was going to be played — and some advocated canceling it — there was no way around the controversy. So how did the network and its commentators do in finding an unhappy medium in Happy Valley — making the best of a terrible situation?

Play-by-play man Dave Pasch, analyst Chris Spielman, and sideline reporters Tom Rinaldi and Lisa Salters drew the short straws calling the game. And even grading on a curve, they appeared in over their heads.

Pasch kept calling the day “emotional,” but that hardly sounds commensurate with the scandal’s magnitude. Nor did anyone ever broach an obvious question — whether Paterno’s assistants who remain on the staff (including son Jay, who broke down during a postgame interview with Rinaldi) might have been aware about the charges against Jerry Sandusky that have rocked the program.

During his intro, Spielman said, “Penn State is bigger than one person,” which sort of flies in the face of the mystique surrounding Paterno and a tenure spanning parts of six decades. Spielman then sounded a little like Dr. Phil, adding, “They’re on the road to healing.”

The game opened with a genuine moment, as both teams knelt in prayer at midfield. ESPN also stationed a reporter outside Paterno’s house for no apparent reason, since nothing was happening there, other than (at one point) some poor mailman trying to do his job.

After that, a day ESPN’s Rece Davis called “surreal” mostly centered on football. When the announcers noted, for example, that Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Larry Johnson became emotional talking about the alleged victims, they quickly abandoned the conversation and went back to discussing how to stop the Cornhuskers.

The game itself wasn’t punctuated by much action in the early going, unless you’re a big fan of punts. Penn State’s second-half rally fell short, and Nebraska won 17-14.

Although Penn State’s interim president, Rodney A. Erickson, said in what’s normally a ho-hum in-game advertisement for the schools “we cannot go back to business as usual,” there was a sense ESPN’s studio crew, at least, longed to get back to that.

Like the announcers, the “College GameDay” team seemed uncomfortable, trying to go back and forth between X’s and O’s and what Penn State players had been through over the past week.

“Can they win one for the retired legend?” host Chris Fowler asked, substituting Paterno for “Gipper” in Knute Rockne’s famous speech. As usual, Lee Corso played the court jester by dancing with Stanford’s tree mascot, which looked even more embarrassing than it sounds.

Earlier in the week, the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism enterprise, criticized ESPN for being “tone deaf” in its initial coverage, including a piece on its website about how the scandal might affect recruiting. ESPN recovered somewhat as events progressed, devoting its “Outside the Lines” program to Penn State, with host Bob Ley calling it “a scandal unlike any other.”

Of course, sports media haven’t been alone in blanketing this story, amid debate as to whether Paterno should have been allowed to finish the season. In that regard, the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay summed up the problem best, explaining why the coach had to go immediately: “For three or so hours, was a nation’s outrage expected to take a football holiday?”

ESPN analyst Mark May also got it right, saying at halftime that because so much remains unknown, “This story is just beginning.” It is, and however distasteful the Penn State allegations are, wishing we could get back to sports won’t make it go away.

Davis applauded the announcing team after the game, and admittedly, they faced a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t challenge. Perhaps that’s why my guess is, given the choice, ESPN would have liked to call its own audible — and punted.