ESPN, Local Paper Sat on Syracuse Sex-Abuse Tape for Years

More than eight years ago, Bernie Fine's lead accuser gave ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard a tape on which the Syracuse basketball coach's wife apparently confirms his sexual abuse. Why did neither media organization do a story? Plus, Buzz Bissinger on the Syracuse head coach's boneheaded defense of his assistant.


The sports media have been quick to tell us that the Syracuse sex-abuse scandal is not the same as the Penn State sex-abuse scandal. That is, Penn State head football coach and college football icon Joe Paterno knew of the allegations concerning his friend and former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky for years and did nothing, while his basketball counterpart at Syracuse, head coach Jim Boeheim, does not seem to have known about the allegations concerning his friend and longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine until recently. So, for the moment at least, there appears to be no cover-up by the boss.

What the sports media are not telling us is that the big difference between the Penn State scandal and the one that has just exploded at Syracuse is this: it is the media that did the covering up. Well, perhaps not entirely. It probably will be a couple of more weeks before we know which local authorities knew what and when they knew it.

What do we know? First, we know that sometime in 2002, Bobby Davis, a then–30-year-old former University of Syracuse ball boy, reported to Syracuse police that Fine had sexually abused him for years, starting when he was about 11. We also know that shortly after he contacted the police, Davis also told the Syracuse Post-Standard that he had been abused by Fine.

We know that on Oct. 8, 2002, Davis secretly—and legally—taped a phone conversation with Fine’s wife, Laurie. Let’s pause for a minute for an outtake from that conversation, because any day now, according to reports, Mrs. Fine will be calling a press conference in an attempt to refute the tape:

She was asked by Davis what she knew about her husband’s alleged abuse: “Do you think I’m the only one that he’s ever done that to?” To which she responds, “No, I think there might have been others, but it was geared to ... there was something about you.”

Later in the call, Laurie Fine tells Davis that she wanted to come to his defense because “I care about you”—you might want to know at this point that Davis also alleges to have had a sexual relationship with Mrs. Fine after he turned 18—“and I don’t want to see you being treated that way ...”

“If it was another girl like I told you,” she goes on, “it would be easy to step in because you know what you’re up against ... it’s another guy, you can’t compete with that. It’s just wrong, and you were just a kid. You’re a man now, but you were a kid then.”

Fine also said 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.”

(We’ll let Mrs. Fine clarify these statements at her press conference. Meanwhile, you can read the entire transcript here.)

We know that after a six-month investigation, Davis was told by the Post-Standard that the paper did not plan to publish his accusations because it could not corroborate his claims. (It isn’t clear that anyone from the paper contacted either of the Fines or Coach Boeheim or university officials before making this decision.)

Say what? The Post-Standard had Davis’s accusations; then it had the tape with Laurie Fine’s own words. How, considering those two factors, could anyone conclude that further investigation was not warranted?

Anyway, in June 2003, after the Post-Standard closed its investigation, Davis contacted ESPN and repeated his allegations concerning Bernie Fine and sent it the tape of his conversation with Laurie Fine. It isn’t clear who Davis contacted at ESPN—someone at the network, the magazine, the website, or all three. (One assumes that if any one of the three branches knew about it, then all must have.)

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Jump to 2005. The university said it conducted its own investigation after being “contacted by an adult male who told us that he had reported to the Syracuse City Police that he had been subjected to inappropriate contact by an associate men’s basketball coach. The alleged activity took place in the 1980's and 1990's. We were informed by the complainant that the Syracuse City Police had declined to pursue the matter because the statute of limitations had expired.

“On hearing of the allegations in 2005, the University immediately launched its own comprehensive investigation through its legal counsel. That nearly four-month long investigation included a number of interviews with people the complainant said would support his claims. All of those identified by the complainant denied any knowledge of wrongful conduct by the associate coach. The associate coach also vehemently denied the allegations.” The university has not revealed from whom it first heard the allegations or who it interviewed in its investigation.

(According to Chancellor Nancy Cantor, the university still holds to this line, that it found nothing in 2005 to warrant further action.)

Jump ahead again to Nov. 10, 2011, the day after Penn State fired Joe Paterno. Emboldened by Penn State’s action, Danielle Roach, a childhood friend and former girlfriend of Davis's and also a former volunteer for Rape Crisis, told Syracuse police a friend of hers had been abused by Fine. In 2002, she claims, after she and Davis had known each other more than 20 years, he confided in her about his molestation by Fine. On her encouragement, Davis called Syracuse police and was told that there was a statute of limitations on the case and that nothing could be done. Angered, Roach says, she left messages at the Onondaga County district attorney’s office and, in a sworn statement to Syracuse police this past Monday, stated that nine years ago no one returned her repeated phone messages.

Around the same time that Roach went to the Syracuse police for a second time, another man stepped forward: Michael Lang, Bobby Davis’s stepbrother. Lang called ESPN—again, it isn’t clear who he called there—and said he also had been molested by Fine.

On Nov. 17, the story went national when ESPN aired a segment in which Davis and Lang both accused Fine. Six days later, a man named Zach Tomaselli stepped forward and gave Syracuse police a statement that Fine had raped him in 2002, when he was 13.

Finally, Davis and Roach had gotten the story out before the public. The timing, said Roach, was “unbelievable. I just wonder if because we couldn’t move forward that long ago, did we put any other kids in that position?” Probably other kids were put in that position, but Roach and Davis can hardly blame themselves for that. It was a combination of stupidity, cowardice, and moral idiocy by everyone involved—including the Syracuse Post-Standard and ESPN.

Turn on an ESPN channel today or go to its website and you’ll find someone taking a bow for “breaking” the Syracuse story. What you won’t find is anyone stepping forward to answer the question of why, for nearly eight and a half years after receiving the Bobby Davis-Laurie Fine tape, they did ... nothing.

In a statement riddled with tortuous double talk, ESPN reporter Mark Schwarz tried to explain ESPN’s position. “We did not go to the authorities with the tape. The authorities did speak to Bobby Davis before the tape was made in 2002. He spoke to a Syracuse police detective, who he says spent five minutes on the phone with him and didn’t even do a detective report ... [The detective] told him the statute of limitations had come and gone, and that was why Bobby Davis says he recorded the tape to try to at least corroborate his story this way.”

Reflect for a moment on Schwarz’s words: “We did not go to the authorities with the tape” and “Bobby Davis says he recorded the tape to try to at least corroborate his story this way.”

(And if you want to see him actually say it, go here.)

In 2003, ESPN’s excuse to Davis was that it could find no one to corroborate—ESPN's word—his story. But didn’t the tape, which ESPN sat on for years, do exactly that? At the very least, didn’t it prove that the matter should be further investigated?

To continue, Schwarz says, “But once the interviews were done 10 days ago with Bobby Davis and Mike Lang, that tape, then, through them, got in the hands of the police department and is evidence in this case. The district attorney, Bill Fitzpatrick, also has a copy of that tape.”

But why did that tape have to wait until 2011 to “get into the hands of” the police and district attorney when ESPN had it all along? Why didn’t it turn over the tape—or a copy of it—and ask why no investigation was being conducted? Schwarz wimps out with the excuse that “these are grave charges. We had to do everything that we could do to confirm that the voice was indeed Laurie Fine ... You hear on the tape that he says ‘Hello, Laurie,’ and she says ‘Hello, Bobby,’ but in this kind of case you have to confirm it.

“That’s why we wanted to, before airing it, take the extra step to run it by a voice-recognition expert who says yes, that it is the voice of Laurie Fine. Because we were able to compare it to other samples of Laurie Fine's voice, we were able to proceed.”

Yes, the charges were so “grave” and so much the kind of case you have to “confirm” that ESPN took the “extra step” to confirm it eight and a half years after the tape was first brought to it. Did it really take ESPN that long to find other samples of Laurie Fine’s voice? Could they not have sent a reporter to Syracuse or knock on her door to try to get a statement from her? Even a verbal rebuff would have given them a voice sample. Where, in fact, did ESPN get these extra voice samples, and why did it take so long?

Perhaps because until now no one at ESPN was trying?

Penn State lost a university president, a legendary head football coach, an athletic director, and a school administrator because they heard allegations of sexual abuse and did nothing to investigate or follow up. Who, I wonder, at ESPN—the network, the magazine, or the website—had knowledge of the Syracuse allegations—allegations of boys being raped—and decided not to pursue them?

Who at ESPN is the equivalent of a board of trustees who will now step in and do the right thing by firing those responsible? Because this time boys weren’t raped just because the good old boys looked the other way. This time, boys were raped because the good old boys who were supposed to be watching the good old boys looked the other way.

(For a complete chronology of events in the Bernie Fine case, go to the Post-Standard’s site.)