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ESPN Paints Unfair Picture Of James Franklin In ‘The Paterno Legacy’

ESPN’s long-awaited retrospective documentary on Joe Paterno, “The Paterno Legacy”, finally premiered Monday night.

Along with a fairly inconclusive look at where Paterno’s legacy now sits more than 10 years after his firing and the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, ESPN reporter John Barr made quite the effort to get James Franklin’s thoughts on the complex situation.

Barr approached the eighth-year Nittany Lion head coach at his post-practice media scrum ahead of this past season’s Rutgers game. Along with an extended Tuesday presser that’s generally known on the beat as a time for more big picture questions, Franklin holds a roughly 15-minute opportunity for questions on Wednesday nights following practice. This window is generally used for direct thoughts on the upcoming opponent, and Franklin notoriously sticks to his “1-0” mentality.

To no avail, Barr asked Franklin three times what he believes Paterno’s legacy means to Penn State. The head coach twice dodged the question by noting that he’s focused on the current program, all before he flat-out ignored Barr as a member of Penn State’s strategic communications team shut down the line of questioning.

“What we’re talking about right now is the current program and the things that are affecting our program right now,” Franklin said before turning away from Barr.

To be fair to ESPN’s investigative team, Barr made a clear offer to Franklin to sit down and talk about it at a later date. However, there’s no doubt that without context, a quick clip of Franklin from practice makes the head coach seem far from well-spoken or open on the topic.

It’s no secret that this is a topic Franklin doesn’t enjoy talking about publicly. The Langhorne, Pennsylvania, native mentioned Paterno and his legacy during his introductory press conference as Penn State’s head coach back in 2014 but has since largely avoided any more extended discussion.

ESPN noted that it reached out to Penn State for a more formal sit-down with Franklin but was denied. If a request was indeed filed and turned down or ignored by the head coach and his communications team, then it’s understandable that Barr took the opportunity to go to Franklin himself.

However, it seems clear that ESPN’s crew, which arrived at the post-practice availability with Barr and a cameraman in tow, came away with a soundbite that perfectly fit a narrative for this documentary. In fact, Franklin’s short, dismissive answer to the question was used as a prominent part of the trailer for the piece. Skip to the 50-second mark below to check it out.

Paterno’s legacy at Penn State is a beast of a topic to try and tackle, to say the very least. There was no chance Franklin was going to come close to doing this during a quick, game-week press conference. He was quick to shut down any discussion on it — just like he is on many non-football topics — but it’s tough to blame him in this situation. He was perhaps ambushed by Barr and was absolutely within his right to punt on the question.

As an investigative reporter, Barr was also largely just doing his job in pressing Franklin. However, the head coach made it clear that he wouldn’t speak publicly on Paterno’s legacy, and that non-answer was still utilized to build hype for the documentary and was prominent in its closing minutes.

Franklin is the head coach of a football team whose players were all in elementary or middle school when the Sandusky scandal broke. It’s understandable that he wasn’t too keen on answering questions on a topic that has little to nothing to do with his team or coaching staff.

Further, sharing his true feelings on what Paterno means to Penn State would put him in a lose-lose situation. If this documentary proves nothing else, it’s that students and fans have strong feelings on how the long-time head coach should be looked at as part of the university’s history. More importantly, it’s clear that there’s still no right answer. Why would Franklin want to go anywhere near such a divisive topic?

This is a complex situation, and if Franklin wants to sit down one day and share his complete thoughts on it, great. Until then, however, it’s simply not fair to use out-of-context answers from Franklin in a documentary that supposedly examines the legacy of Paterno — a man who hasn’t been part of Penn State’s program for a decade. By including a clip from a random Wednesday night press conference in November, ESPN makes its portrayal of Franklin as incomplete as the documentary itself.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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