We joke, when we’re young, about old codgers who yell, “You kids get off my damn lawn!” and as we get older we joke that we’re turning into those old codgers. I’ve solved that problem by not having a lawn — no need to yell.
Or be yelled at, since I’m not running across my neighbors’ lawns, or practicing lawn journalism. Last weekend, while trying to sit through ESPN’s coverage from State College, Pa., I was tempted to yell, “You reporters get off his damn lawn!” at the journalists camped out at Joe Paterno’s house, where absolutely nothing happened all day long.
It took a lot for me to feel sorry for Paterno that day after the revelations of the previous week, but he’d been fired, he’d hired a criminal attorney and that attorney had told him not to speak. His team was playing Nebraska, and he wasn’t there. I’m not sure he’s done paying for whatever part he played in whatever happened at Penn State, but I do think he could have been left in peace on what was the first Saturday of the rest of his life. Learning this week that he has lung cancer makes me certain of it.
And don’t get my wrong, I felt sorry for the ESPN reporter, too. It can’t be fun, filling all that airtime with nothing whatsoever worthwhile to say. We were told, breathlessly, that his son, an assistant at Penn State, had visited him earlier that morning. That two men had come to stand on the sidewalk outside the house. That there was a “cathedral”-like atmosphere at the house. That the house itself was very nondescript, hardly befitting a coach of Paterno’s stature. And so on.
What did any of this have to do with the story, or add to our understanding of it? What did it add to the coverage of the Penn State-Nebraska game, for that matter? Not a thing.
ESPN perfected lawn reporting when it first gave my old friend Rachel Nichols the thankless job of standing outside Brett Favre’s house in Mississippi, waiting for him to declare whether he’d once again grace the NFL with his presence. The World Wide Leader now has enough staff to kill the fescue in every yard of every athlete in America if it chooses (wrote the print journalist jealously). And apparently it chooses.
I did like several aspects of last Saturday’s coverage. For instance, I was glad they showed the pregame prayer gathering for Nebraska and Penn State players at midfield — and that we weren’t allowed to listen in. That was a moment that should have been for the players, and only the players.
After that, I decided to keep any further exposure to the Penn State coverage to a minimum, but I did catch a talking head remark after the game that while Paterno wasn’t there, he really did coach that game. I know ESPN has a lot of people talking all the time, but it’s statements like that that make me appreciate Matt Millen’s tearful on-camera breakdown. At least it was unrehearsed and sincere, rather than a clumsy attempt to elicit pathos.
The Penn State story is far from over. In the weeks and months (yes, months) ahead, the games will end, football itself will fade as an element of this story and the focus will turn, finally and fully, on what really went on at Penn State: on who knew what, and when, and what they did or didn’t do about it. By then, both the weather and the news will probably be too bleak for lawn journalism. Or perhaps the reporters will move to the lawn of a courthouse, where this story really belongs.