Last Thursday night, ESPN aired an hour and a half long special that featured Joe Paterno and Mike Krzyzewski, head basketball coach of the Duke Blue Devils, opining on leadership, family, teaching, values, recruiting, and NCAA guidelines. The two men have some experience in those areas - Paterno is major college football's winningest coach and Coach K is three wins from surpassing his former mentor, Bob Knight, as the college basketball equivalent.
Difference Makers was highly anticipated amongst the people in this community as well as the many Penn Staters outside of it. Naturally, David Jones of the Harrisburg Patriot-News would have an opinion on it . . . you know, if he can be bothered with it . . .
I made a half-hearted effort in the last few days not to do two things:
Read the si.com piece on the genesis of LeBron James' The Decision hourlong special aired last summer on ESPN.
Watch the Joe Paterno/Mike Krzyzewski 90-minute special first aired Thursday night on ESPN.
I didn't make a strong enough effort. They each found me. And I was powerless to resist.
Nice to know that a columnist who makes his living covering Penn State sports is almost too cool to watch a major television special featuring the university's football coach. Of course, when he did watch it, it wasn't because of the two legendary coaches or the national appeal. No, no. It was basically because of the marketing . . . or not . . . or sort of . . .
The reason was my fascination with promotion. I find an elaborate sell job perversely riveting.
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See, I love the pitch when it's properly executed, when it's over-the-top unctuous. So, I'm game for any such presentation.
The problem with Disney is, they always seem to think they're too slick for us, that they're so subtle we won't know we're being pitched. Maybe they are.
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For me, the problem with ESPN's pitches is, they aren't quite shameless enough. The suits running and co-opting their productions take not only us consumers but their human products for halfwits. There's always a masterplan for our manipulation that we're not supposed to discern.
Who knew David Jones would have a hipster's love of ironic humor? That was apparently one of the major problem with Difference Makers - the mainstream cable network wasn't over the top cliché enough in its promotion. But no matter; the heart of the Patriot-News article starts here:
I've read nothing but raves on all the chatboards for Difference Makers: Life Lessons with Paterno & Krzyzewski. People seem to have not only loved it but loved it for all the reasons ESPN sold it. They wanted to get away from all the sordid creepy-crawly stuff going on the last couple of years in major college athletics and hear some good news.
Of course, many of these same consumers were true believers in a charlatan named Jim Tressel. They were disillusioned and needed a Pick Me Up bouquet.
Comparing Joe Paterno and Coach K to the unmitigated disaster that is Jim Tressel is disingenuous and ludicrous. Be that as it may, loving Difference Makers for all the reasons ESPN sold it does not necessarily equate to loving it for the wrong reasons. Maybe Coach K and Paterno are good for college sports. Maybe their teams graduate players, represent their school well, and win.
The crux of the piece begins and ends with the idea that ESPN has a vested interest in promoting all that is right with college athletics in order to apologize for carrying college football and its inherently sinful ways. That argument is nonsense. College football and basketball draw enormous ratings and dollars for ESPN and its counterparts in spite of pathetic graduation rates and multiple scandals at high profile universities.
ESPN has a vested interest in the controversy of college sports because it draws ratings. They aren't attempting to make their business morally acceptable. There's very little to question about ESPN's motivation. The network is out to draw ratings in order to make money, and they do so by putting on televised specials about famous subjects that people watch. There's no hidden agenda and no master plan outside of getting millions of people to tune into a college football special during the doldrums of the offsesason.
As a basketball writer, David Jones is among the finest. He is knowledgeable and, even better, curious about the Penn State program and the sport itself. That said, somewhere along the way he became too jaded with college football to enjoy the product. The column he wrote concerning Difference Makers was one that he could have written the day before the event even took place because he developed his opinion before the program had even aired. Had he even bothered to pay more than cursory attention to it, he would have heard the most newsworthy piece of the entire event. In the midst of the stories about family and relating to student-athletes who are generations younger, the two coaches made salient points on a current NCAA issue - Coach K pointing out the absurdity of the NCAA rulebook and Paterno reinforcing it with a story about how he had accidentally broken a rule the week before.
David Jones may have enjoyed a debate-style program that featured "a good scrap" between the coaches and fans, but that's clearly not what this event was intended to be. Some things are just meant to be uncontroversial. Jones has multiple opportunities during the football season to have "a little back-n-forth" with Paterno and takes advantage of those opportunities regularly. This is being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian and looking to find fault in harmless time filler. In the author's own words,
And what's the point in that?