ESPN should have pressed Fine allegations

There's a lot of outrage right now over ESPN's failure to report in 2003 that there were sexual abuse allegations against Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine.

We're hearing it from fans through the Poynter Review Project mailbag. And a handful of critics have called out the network via blogs and Twitter, suggesting that if ESPN was not confident enough to publish, it should have at least gone to law enforcement with its information.

Eight years ago, ESPN journalists spent significant time and energy over roughly a six-month period interviewing one alleged victim, Bobby Davis; listening to the now-infamous recording between Davis and Bernie Fine's wife, Laurie; and trying to get other possible victims to talk.

Based on what Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news, told us this week, it's clear that the network didn't have enough information to publish a story at that time. Going public would have been journalistically irresponsible.

In the wake of the recent indictment of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, Mike Lang came forward as the second alleged victim to accuse Fine. But in 2003, according to Doria, Lang was denying that he had been molested. Along with Lang, who is Davis' stepbrother, another man ESPN interviewed in 2003 denied he was a victim, and another potential victim refused to talk. The Fines both refused to talk as well.

Fine was fired Sunday after the 10-year-old voice recording of his wife, Laurie, emerged in which she discusses her husband's alleged abuse of Davis, and after the accusations of another alleged victim, Zachary Tomaselli, came to light.

Many critics have suggested that the tape of Laurie Fine should have been enough for ESPN to go public. It's not. Nowhere on the tape does she describe firsthand knowledge of her husband abusing children. She says that she thinks there were other victims, and disturbingly acknowledges that she believes Davis was abused by her husband. But she doesn't describe why she believes that to be true or say she witnessed abuse herself. (ESPN also couldn't prove until recently the woman on the tape was actually Laurie Fine.)

Newsrooms often deal with damning allegations, with no way to gather enough evidence to prove they are true. That's what happened to The Idaho Statesman when it was investigating rumors that Sen. Larry Craig was gay. It's also what happened to the St. Petersburg Times (which is owned by The Poynter Institute) and the Miami Herald when they investigated Rep. Mark Foley's questionable relationships with congressional pages.

When it comes to behavior behind closed doors, journalists often hit a dead end. When this happens, a journalism investigation becomes like a detective's cold case. You can keep knocking on doors, even though the chances of turning up new information seem remote and you do so at the expense of other investigations. You can also put the investigation on a back burner, stoking it only when new information arises. Or, you can drop it, which is what ESPN did in 2003.

We think the network gave up prematurely.

The network should have pursued two more lines of inquiry. First, someone should have called the chief of police in Syracuse (who, it turns out, was a former Syracuse basketball player, although no one at ESPN knew that at the time. But if they'd called, maybe they would have.) Reporters should have asked the police department why it wasn't pursuing an investigation. Given all that we know about people who sexually abuse children, if there was evidence to substantiate one case, it seems reasonable that police should look for more recent victims.

"We weren't looking to do any kind of examination of the Syracuse Police Department," Doria said. "We maybe could have checked further. At the time, Dennis Duvall was the chief, maybe if we had been aware of that, it would have piqued our interest."

Second, ESPN journalists should have called someone in the Syracuse president's office to ask whether there were other complaints and to review policies that govern the interaction of employees and children.

These two basic lines of inquiry could have shaken something loose. We do not believe ESPN acted with gross negligence, but rather a lack of persistence. And we don't believe ESPN was responsible for leaving other children vulnerable; that's on the Syracuse PD.

ESPN's lack of persistence is all the more glaring because by 2003, we as a society were coming to grips with the full implications of the systemic failure of the Catholic Church to protect children. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Northeast region, where Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law had lost his post in the wake of evidence (uncovered by Doria's former employer, The Boston Globe) that Law protected priests rather than hold them accountable.

There are a lot of parallels between the culture of sports and the culture of the Catholic Church. They are dominated by men. Successful leaders are lionized and worshipped by their followers. And there's a lot of money and power at stake.

When you pull back from the narrow view of the sports world and look at the broader picture, it's obvious that certain institutions are vulnerable to turning a blind eye to child sexual abuse. Part of the watchdog role of journalists is to hold those powerful institutions accountable.

ESPN and other journalists could have, and should have, tried harder to do that back in 2003. It's possible the network still would have fallen short of the threshold to go public. But if ESPN had exhausted all the reporting possibilities at the time, today it could say in good conscience its news-gatherers did all they could do.

Instead, the best the network can say is that it did almost everything possible. It doesn't sound quite as good.