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ESPN, Matt Millen dropped ball during Penn State coverage

ESPN miscast analyst former Penn State alum Matt Millen during its coverage Freeh Report school. | Getty Images

ESPN miscast analyst and former Penn State alum Matt Millen during its coverage of the Freeh Report on the school. | Getty Images

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Updated: July 13, 2012 3:25PM

ESPN made a questionable choice in casting the biggest star in its Penn State scandal coverage Thursday: Matt Millen.

Especially in focusing on Millen immediately after the 267-page report on Penn State’s internal investigation into its handling of Jerry Sandusky was released Thursday morning. That was the time for coverage to help viewers digest the details. Instead, Millen, after anchor Lindsay Czarniak asked about his “emotions right now,” put his finger on his own miscasting: “There’s so much it’s hard to process all that.”

At least Millen seemed aware of his vacillation and humble about his bafflement. Recalling the “very pristine program” at Penn State, where he played for Paterno and Sandusky, he pretty much summed up his sound bites. The report is “completely antithetical to everything Paterno stood for. ... That’s why it’s so hard for me to grasp this” — making it hard to grasp why ESPN kept putting him front and center.

Still, using TV talkers that some viewers love to hate — think Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann — can make sense since you count in the ratings even if you’re seething. Predictably, the Twitterverse, which often fumes about TV sports, was abuzz. Like @Billyy_Madison: “Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened” to Millen.

Coverage was worse elsewhere. The Big Ten Network stayed with a replay of a 2011 Ohio State-Purdue football game — there’s TV you can’t cut away from — rather than airing the news conference for the report. In a statement and a huge understatement, BTN said it’s not “a news organization.” No one will ever argue with that.

ESPN coming back to Millen throughout the day made sense if only for his unique qualification of having played there. (ESPN said Thursday that Penn State player-turned-ESPN-announcer Todd Blackledge was unavailable to comment.)

“Joe was flawed,” Millen said. “He made mistakes, and this was a big one.” You didn’t have to play for Paterno to figure that out.

“And this kind of puts the finger on the point of blame,” Millen said. Unless, he added, it doesn’t: Paterno “was in charge of this particular deal, but he had people above him. And I don’t care what decision you make ... the guy at the top (of the university), he pulls the string every time.” Not exactly, said ESPN’s Mark May: At Penn State, when Paterno said “jump, everyone else would have said, ‘How high?’”

Still, Millen said, “If Paterno were here and presented with the facts, he’d take the blame.” But as a coach, “to steer the whole university, that’s not his job.” As if anybody is saying it was.

Other ESPN voices were more direct. Rece Davis wondered how dumb it had to have been if anybody at Penn State worried that exposing Sandusky would be bad PR: “What in the world would have been better publicity than ferreting out a pedophile and stopping him?”

The TV question going forward now is how networks will cover Penn State games this season. Said ESPN’s Rod Gilmore: “I don’t know how you do a broadcast of a Penn State game and not be aware of this. It’s not going away.”

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