11.28.11

Why News Organizations Were Silent About Syracuse Abuse Allegations

Long before the university’s assistant basketball coach was fired over sexual-abuse allegations, ESPN and a local paper had a damning tape—and sat on it. Was that the right call?

My first reaction upon learning that a decade ago two news organizations sat on a tape containing allegations that a Syracuse University basketball coach sexually abused a team ball boy was to shake my head: here we go again.

How could journalists not report the existence of such a tape, considering that Bernie Fine’s wife was voicing her suspicions? Was ESPN afraid of upsetting the college-basketball establishment? Did The Syracuse Post-Standard worry about ticking off local fans? Was this another gut-wrenching case, as at Penn State, of looking the other way?

Both outlets waited until this month—the university fired Fine on Sunday—to say, oh, by the way, we had the tape of this conversation a decade ago.

But it’s a little more complicated than that.

The Post-Standard says Bobby Davis, who has now publicly accused Fine of years of molestation—which the former coach flatly denies—provided a copy of the secretly taped 47-minute phone call with Laurie Fine shortly after recording it in October 2002. Davis also showed the paper a copy of his phone bill, which included the call to the Fine home.

The Post-Standard also says it conducted a six-month investigation but declined to publish anything “because the newspaper could find no witnesses, enough corroborating evidence or a second accuser.”

Two reporters for the newspaper attempted to interview Laurie Fine at her home, and “she acknowledged she had the phone conversation with Davis. She confirmed portions of the tape are accurate, but denied saying other statements on the tape. Laurie Fine suggested in that interview that Davis had taped her on multiple occasions and edited the recordings to create a phony tape.”

The paper also spoke to Davis’s stepbrother Lang, who now alleges that Fine molested him. At the time, says the Post-Standard, Lang denied being molested.

ESPN, which obtained the tape in 2003, didn’t simply brush off the allegations, either. The sports network says it “hired a voice-recognition expert who said the voice on the tape matches the voice of Laurie Fine.”

But the bottom line: “ESPN did not report Davis’s accusations, or report the contents of the tape, because no one else would corroborate his story.”

Let’s face it: to report such career-ending allegations is a huge and risky step. A news organization has to be sure it’s got a strong case. Yes, Davis was making the accusation and had the coach’s wife on tape saying she was seriously concerned. Was that enough to go with? What if Davis was lying? What if Fine, who obviously didn’t provide much cooperation, was mistaken? What if Fine was right that the tape had been tampered with? It’s a bit of a Hail Mary pass based on what they had.

Still, the exchanges on the tape are absolutely chilling. On the tape, the Post-Standard reports, Laurie Fine told Davis: “The issue at hand is that he had no business doing what he did with you.” And: “You did nothing wrong, and you were a child, and he took advantage of that.”

To report such career-ending allegations is a huge and risky step; a news organization has to be sure it’s got a strong case.

From the ESPN story:

“Do you think I’m the only one that he’s ever done that to?” Davis asked.

“No ... I think there might have been others but it was geared to ... there was something about you,” Laurie Fine said.

“Yeah, that’s what I’m wondering,” Davis said. “Like I’m wondering why I was, like, the worst one.”

“I don’t know,” Fine said.

Laurie Fine and Davis also discussed what sexual acts Bernie Fine and Davis engaged in. In the discussion, Davis said Bernie Fine touched him inappropriately, but denied that they ever engaged in oral sex.

Later in the call, Fine tells Davis that she wanted to come to his defense but she just wasn’t capable of it. “Because I care about you, and I didn’t want to see you being treated that way,” Fine said.

And there’s Fine saying this of her husband: “You know, he needs ... that male companionship that I can’t give him, nor is he interested in me, and vice versa.”

At no time, however, did Laurie Fine say she had witnessed any acts of sexual abuse. She assumes her husband committed them, and doesn’t act surprised at what Davis is saying. But she never went to the Syracuse police. (Davis says he did notify the cops at the time, and did so again after the Penn State scandal broke.)

It’s hard to believe either news organization let this drop. But that’s the insidious thing about adults sexually abusing children: there are rarely eyewitnesses, and it’s an awfully hard crime to prove.