ESPN's Role in the Bernie Fine Investigation is Troubling


ESPN’s Outside the Lines revealed an audio tape Sunday of former Syracuse ballboy Bobby Davis talking with Laurie Fine, the wife of former Syracuse assistant coach Bernie Fine. If you haven’t heard the the troubling tape, here’s a transcript. Basically, Fine’s wife was complicit in the alleged sexual abuse of Davis by Bernie, but said nothing. The tape leaves no gray area where she stood.

It was recorded in 2002, and provided to ESPN (and the Syracuse Post-Standard) by Bobby Davis in 2003, when he first approached them about the abuse. Over eight years ago, ESPN knew about Fine’s wife basically confirming she knew her husband was a child molester.

Remember back when ESPN first broke this story on the evening of November 17th? Here’s what that first story, by Mark Schwarz and Arty Berko, said on the issue of ESPN being aware of the allegations as early as 2003:

“Outside the Lines” investigated Davis’ story in 2003, but decided not to run the story because there were no other victims who would talk, and no independent evidence to corroborate his story. In recent days, a second man, Lang, contacted “Outside the Lines” with information alleging that Fine had also molested him. Lang said he was inspired to talk after seeing news coverage of the Sandusky case.

At the time the story broke, there were questions about ESPN’s handling, but it was justifiable if they could not corroborate the story and had no independent evidence. In fact, there were some concerns about ESPN going with the story on the basis of the step-brother coming forward as the second accuser, and whether ESPN was pushing a story they could own early in the wake of the Penn State scandal.

Well, now we know that ESPN knew more than it let on. They had this tape already. The tape, along with separate news reported in the Post-Standard of a third accuser coming forward, was enough to cause Syracuse University to go ahead and fire Bernie Fine yesterday after it was released. It’s powerful, damning stuff.

And ESPN knew about it for eight years. And ESPN knew about it when they broke the story ten days ago.

It raises two separate issues. First is ESPN’s role in not addressing this eight years ago, when they did have this independent corroborating evidence from the wife’s statements. These aren’t just ambiguous statements that could be interpreted different ways. She knew. Even if she later denied it when confronted (and why wouldn’t she? She hid it for years and didn’t feel it important enough to say anything) it was pretty powerful stuff.

Second is ESPN’s handling since the story broke. They knew about this recording. They knew it on November 18th. They had to know its impact as part of the story. Did they sandbag here to create multiple news cycles? Not every part of the story emerges at once, but this is a little different than having a story develop, with nuances, after the initial news breaks. That would be what happened when the third accuser came forward, in response to the allegations.

This was information they already had. I suspect they will claim it took time to verify the voice using an expert. Why wasn’t that done before then? And why wasn’t it done at the time of initial reporting, when the evidence was already known?

This scandal involving Bernie Fine has many angles. The molester himself, of course, and the wife who enabled and looked the other way. Jim Boeheim’s vociferous defense. ESPN’s role, is troubling. This will divide up into two stories. The actual Fine investigation, and what happens at Syracuse on one hand. The media’s handling on the other – the fact that ESPN and the Post-Standard had this audio recording all along.

Something’s rotten in Bristol. ESPN is going to have to address this, and right away. Even the World Wide Leader at controlling the means and the message is going to have difficulty controlling the message on their handling of this matter.