Sacred cows

The Penn State story offers a glimpse of the problems with league- and team-owned broadcast operations

Full-Court Press is a periodic column about the coverage of sports.

On July 12, a report prepared by former FBI Director Louis Freeh at the behest of Penn State University slammed the school for covering up former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual predation of children, and demolished Joe Paterno’s reputation in the process. Freeh delivered the crux of his findings via a press conference, one covered live by virtually every media organization with an interest in sports or news.

With one glaring exception: the Big Ten Network, the outlet tasked with exhaustively covering Penn State’s athletic conference. As one of its signature athletic programs crumbled, and one of its legendary coaches had his statue torn down (figuratively—the literal removal of Paterno’s statue in Happy Valley took place Sunday morning), BTN was airing its standard summer fare—swim meets, football games from previous seasons, and documentaries on other, lesser pigskin icons. Network executives hid behind the lame explanation that BTN was “not a news organization,” and thus was unable to mount any programming on the Penn State story.

So give BTN credit, I suppose, for realizing how foolish that sounded and providing first-rate coverage when the NCAA dropped the hammer on Penn State on Monday. BTN showed the presser that detailed the unprecedented sanctions levied upon the school live from Indianapolis (where the NCAA is based), as well as the Big Ten’s follow-on announcement of its own sanctions. In between, the Chicago-based network provided strong in-studio analysis as well as interviews and breaking news and reactions from both Indy and State College, PA. Apparently, they slapped together a pretty solid news organization in less than a fortnight.

League- and franchise-owned networks are a staple of the cable-sports landscape, albeit one located in the backwoods, behind more established channels. The test of these outlets is how they handle bad news within the sports or locker rooms they typically over-cover when times are good. Just how hard does the dog bite the hand that feeds it?

As with BTN and Penn State, the results have been mixed. The NFL Network and NBA TV largely played it straight during their sports’ respective labor woes over the past year. The NFLN, in particular, was as fair as can be given the fact that it’s owned by the league itself. A long and candid interview with player-representative Jeff Saturday at the height of the strife stood out. The National Hockey League is poised to endure a similar test if its players and management cannot work out a deal soon.

The bar for such coverage has been set, and it’s a tough one to clear.

Team-owned networks, meanwhile, don’t have as good a record. For example, the Yankee Entertainment and Sports Network (YES) covers the Bronx Bombers the way TASS once covered the Politburo. Several members of the team, from Jason Giambi to Roger Clemens to Andy Pettitte, were involved in performance-enhancing drug scandals in recent years, but you wouldn’t have known much about that from watching YES. The network either stuck to oblique mentions of “off-field troubles” or ignored the stories altogether.

A rare exception was YES’s handling of Alex Rodriguez’s turn in the doping spotlight. According to Bob Raissman, media reporter at the New York Daily News, the only reason the A-Rod steroids imbroglio was mentioned at all on YES was because the Yankees brass was angry over feeling “blindsided” when Rodriguez was contacted by the FBI in regard to his involvement with controversial doctor Anthony Galea, who has been connected with the distribution of performance-enhancing drugs. So the team allowed YES broadcasters to discuss the usually taboo subject during game telecasts.

In general, team-owned-and-operated channels are a little too close to their subject matter; like embedded reporters during wartime, they owe their very existence to the goodwill of the entity being covered. The league-operated networks at least enjoy the relatively greater distance afforded by having 30 or so subjects on their beat.

This became clear in March after NFLN analyst Warren Sapp claimed that former New Orleans Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey was the “snitch” who outed the team’s bounty program that resulted in sanctions not dissimilar from those imposed upon Penn State. Sapp had little proof of his claim, which enraged the Saints and the league. The network was chastened, but went on reporting the scandal and its many twists and turns.

In that context, the Big Ten Network’s failure to cover the Freeh Report and its fallout was particularly shameful. Meanwhile, let’s remember that the University of Texas launched the Longhorn Network last year in a partnership with ESPN, and be thankful that there isn’t a channel devoted purely to Penn State athletics.

One can only imagine what a Nittany Lion Network would be airing these days.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: , , , ,