When is a scandal connected to sports not a scandal? Apparently when ESPN decides not to report on it.
There is one huge missing piece in the Syracuse-Bernie Fine sex abuse scandal that the media seems to have agreed not to investigate, namely, who at ESPN knew what and why didn’t they do something about it?
In October of 2002, Bobby Davis, the first man to publicly accuse longtime assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine of sexual abuse when he was a child, taped a phone conversation with Fine’s wife, Laurie. In the tape, Mrs. Fine seems to acknowledge everything that her husband has since been accused of. (She also acknowledges an affair with Davis after he turned 18.) Davis’s recording of the call, by the way, was entirely legal.
Early in 2003, Davis took the tape to both the Syracuse Post-Standard and to ESPN, but neither acted on it. Exactly who Davis approached at ESPN isn’t clear — apparently someone in their corporate headquarters in Bristol, Conn. After sitting on the tape for nearly 8 ½ years, ESPN finally aired the recording on November 27 — and then, only after a second accuser, Mike Lang, Davis’s stepbrother, made the same accusations as Davis.
So why did the most powerful and influential sports network in the world not follow-up on allegations of child sexual abuse? It’s a question that’s being asked in a few places, including my own story for the Daily Beast earlier this week and in a subsequent story on the Huffington Post.
But for the most part, the media — particularly the sports media — seems to be buying the self-serving double talk ESPN is dishing out.
Listen to ESPN reporter Mark Schwarz — who, for some strange reason, is being credited with “breaking” the story — evade the issue when asked the question.
Note that Schwarz admits “We did not go to the authorities with the tape,” but doesn’t attempt to give an explanation as to why.
Many are focusing on why ESPN first reported on the allegations against Fine on November 17 but did not air the tape until 10 days later. I think this is misguided. The question is not why did ESPN wait 10 days but why did they wait more than 8 years?
Here’s ESPN Senior Vice President and Director of News Vince Doria when asked about the 10-day delay. “When we had the audio in the past we had never been able to confirm that it was Laurie Fine. Part of it was we had no independent video of her and her voice — something we could look at and say, ‘Yes, that’s her and yes, that appears to be her voice.’ This time around when we re-engaged on the story we did in fact have a video we found online of her serving a meal to Bernie and a number of young men who may or may not have been Syracuse players. In this video you could clearly hear her. This allowed us to submit the audio to a voice recognition expert, which we did last week.”
Is Doria serious? The Syracuse Post-Standard confirmed that it was Fine on the tape back in 2003 the old fashioned, tried-and-true journalistic way: They called her and interviewed her. If ESPN’s holdup was an inability to confirm the voice on the tape was Laurie Fine, why didn’t they call her themselves? (If Davis could record a conversation surreptitiously and legally, why couldn’t ESPN do the same?) And if they didn’t want a phone recording, why couldn’t they have sent a reporter to Fine’s door with a microphone and ask some questions? Even a “No comment” would have given them another voice sample.
ESPN has also maintained that they did not follow-up because they needed a second victim to corroborate. Wasn’t Laurie Fine’s voice alone corroborative evidence for Davis’s allegations? And if Fine had already admitted to the Post-Standard that it was her on the tape, why didn’t ESPN know this?
Mark Schwarz was apparently trying to leave ESPN some wiggle room when he appeared on CNN on November 28. To his credit, Anderson Cooper asked the question no one in the sports media seems to want to ask: “You waited eight years to make this reporting public — the police didn’t know about it until recently. Obviously this is a very serious accusation, there is the possibility that other boys would be victimized. Was there a discussion at ESPN about releasing the tape at the time or telling the authorities about the tape at the time?”
Schwarz replied, “Well, you know, Anderson, that journalists are not necessarily required or expected to hand over evidence that they did not obtain or create themselves to the police … The best and the brightest people in the company talked over this issue and decided that this evidence did not meet our journalistic standards.”
No, they are not necessarily “required” to hand over evidence to the authorities, but the same network condemned a football coach and other university officials for not turning over evidence to authorities in nearly exactly the same circumstances.
What kind of moral idiocy took hold of ESPN in this matter? And where are “the best and the brightest” who actually made the decision to look the other way? Let’s have them step forward and explain this themselves instead of letting their hired hands try to justify it in legalese. Better still, let’s have them explain their decision to all the victims, including the ones who may not have yet come forward, why they weren’t necessarily required to do anything.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 1, 2011