The ESPN segment on the Penn State football program (video here) essentially can be boiled down to the following arguments:
1. Penn State's football program is filled with criminals.
2. Joe Paterno doesn't seem to care all that much about it.
3. Penn State coaches are intentionally recruiting players with questionable behavioral issues in response to the losing seasons of 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2004.
The first argument is compelling, though slightly overstated.
At this point, the statistics are hardly worth arguing over, nor is the process of haggling about the number of charges filed, charges dropped, plea bargains, and so on. Yes, most of the convictions concern drinking and fighting. However, despite the fact that the vast majority of serious charges were either dropped, dismissed, or plead down to misdemeanors, there remains a rather obvious discipline problem within the football program. Anyone who states otherwise cannot be taken seriously.
This brings us to Joe Paterno. He was defiantly defensive in the clips ESPN broadcast. It's partially understandable. Regardless of your opinion on Paterno's present and future roles at Penn State, you can't entirely blame him for not being particularly receptive to ESPN's work.
With that in mind, let's hand it over to David Jones, who wrote an excellent column in Sunday morning's Patriot-News:
What "OTL" gets right is Paterno's nouveau permissiveness. Recalcitrant outliers were thrown out of school in the old days. Now, the coach makes excuses, makes war with Judicial Affairs, and makes up absurd "suspensions" between February and August -- instead of making examples of his scofflaws.
Tough to argue with, even if details concerning the apartment and HUB fights remain somewhat sketchy as to who exactly did what. With each additional arrest or citation, fans on message boards and blogs consistently asked when enough would be enough, essentially calling for someone to be made an example for the good of the program. It hasn't happened, not unless a Ginsu knife and 70 witnesses are involved.
Paterno didn't do himself or his program any favors by being alternatively dismissive and confrontational with the interviewer. He's a trained lawyer* and has 50+ years of experience dealing with the media. If he truly believed the facts were on his side, he should have argued them more effectively. Nobody knows what was edited out of Paterno's interview -- they probably used three minutes of tape from a 45-minute interview session. Still, if ESPN set out to portray him as someone who either doesn't know or doesn't care that there is a discipline problem within his program, they succeeded.
On the other hand, Graham Spanier's appearances in the ESPN piece showed him to be tactful and shrewd. He recognized that while many charges have been thrown out, the number of player encounters with the police are far too great. He closed with, "The bad publicity is frustrating, it's not how we want Penn State to be portrayed in the news." A shot across the bow, perhaps, but not unwarranted.
With respect to Penn State and Joe Paterno intentionally recruiting questionable players, ESPN sought out former Penn State All-American defensive end, Michael Haynes, Scout.com analyst Bob Lichtenfels, and the recently retired sports editor at the Centre Daily Times, Ron Bracken. This accusation was supposed to be the dagger -- proof that Joe Paterno had abandoned the Grand Experiment and gone to the dark side.
A funny thing happened on the way to the sports Emmy. Haynes didn't say anything to directly implicate Penn State. He did say that there was a lot of pressure to go out and get high-end players. This is true. He also said that sometimes, players get out of line, party too much, and generally find ways to get in trouble. This is also true. But while Haynes and Lichtenfels spoke generally of the recruiting difficulties that all programs face, neither explicitly said, "Penn State is intentionally recruiting evil players" or anything remotely approaching that. If they had, you better believe ESPN would've rolled the tape.
Bracken's appearance was forgettable.
Toward the end of segment, Bob Ley interviewed Philadelphia sports radio personality Mike Missanelli (who better to ask about questionable aggressive physical behavior, right?). He made a valid, if rather obvious, observation about Spanier handling the interview better than Paterno, then muttered some weird crap about the need for early signings and called Paterno "an elderly coach who may not be fit to be head coach anymore."
Missanelli's fumbling was funny enough, but the comedic highlight of Sunday morning came afterward on Sportscenter, where an apparently clueless Bob Ley interviewed a sedated (no, wait, that was just his Serious Face and Voice) Stephen A. Smith, of whom Ley said, "from his years in Philadelphia, he's got a perspective on Penn State." Well, yes, a perspective. That's like saying I have a perspective on Easy Bake Ovens -- I know they exist, but not much else. Smith called Paterno "disgraceful, and the University of Penn State needs to get rid of him expeditiously, as quickly as possible." Then the man from Philadelphia who has a perspective on Penn State called it "The University of Penn State" again as his remarks concluded. The Worldwide Leader In Sports, indeed.
Long-term effects? Don't expect any if the team stays out of trouble. That's the danger with the "Outside The Lines" piece. It will only leave a lasting mark on the program if the players continue to put themselves in a position to be arrested. The ESPN report would have been much more damaging at almost any other point on the calendar. It won't affect recruiting -- if anything, it would cause some parents whose kids are considering Penn State to look into the situation a bit further, which in this case is a good thing. The good news is that ESPN came looking for a huge story, and didn't find all that much. Also, it's hard not to wonder how the football program will react to ABC and ESPN this season, in terms of access and hospitality.
Okay. Can we talk about football now?
* - No, wait, that's stupid and not true. He never made it to law school, as 90% of you probably know. Thanks to our friend PSUGirl for the catch.