As if the Penn State child rape scandal wasn’t enough to disgust, allegations about alleged molestation by Syracuse associate head coach Bernie Fine now dominate the sports news. Only those aren’t new allegations. Eight years ago, ESPN had a complaint from Bobby Davis, who claims Fine molested him for many years. Coupled with that complaint was horribly disturbing audio reportedly of Fine’s wife Laurie, exhibiting detailed knowledge of the abuse.
Only now, that the charges have become public, has that audio and story been published. ESPN, which bills itself as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” waited eight years to be a follower on a real life story of possible sexual abuse.
What took them so long?
According to ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard, they couldn’t find other evidence or witnesses. “ESPN did not report Davis' accusations, or report the contents of the tape, because no one else would corroborate his story,” ESPN reported Sunday.
Certainly, caution is warranted. There is no allegation more destructive to a coach, a teacher or anyone who works with young people, than claiming a sex crime occurred. But listening to the tape is a horrifying experience. Davis and the voice that is reportedly Laurie Fine discuss the abuse in excruciating detail.
According to ESPN, Laurie Fine was not only aware of the abuse, she even had her own sexual relationship with Davis when he turned 18 and was a senior in high school. “At another point in the call, Fine says 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.’”
Both outlets are correct that sometimes journalists can’t prove a story, even if it looks like they should. When you are talking about many crimes – like theft or corruption – those are the breaks. Journalists are not agents of the police, after all.
Child molestation is not most ordinary crimes. How a society protects its most vulnerable is a measure of its civilization. Sports reporters – any reporters – don’t get to ignore their obligation to the rest of us simply because they can claim 1st Amendment freedoms.
Traditionally, sports reporting has been a closed society. When all reporters and editors worried about were touchdowns, homeruns and free-throw percentage, that was fine. But sports reporters in 2011 can spend more time in court than watching on court. Both the NBA and NFL have had protracted legal battles, baseball has battled steroid scandals and players from every sport run up rap sheets like they were auditioning for “America’s Most Wanted.”
That calls for a different skill set and a different sensitivity than maybe many sports reporters are expected to have. It’s not easy to switch from asking a winning coach about the big game to asking detailed questions about sexual abuse. Had ESPN been a true worldwide leader in sports, editors and executives would have gotten involved in this story and it wouldn’t have taken eight years for something to happen.
These days, there is great discussion in the news business about the impact of citizen journalists and what that will mean to the industry if ordinary Americans become reporters. But there’s another side to that. What happened to the idea that journalists are also citizens? It’s the same question photographers are often asked when they photograph crime rather than try to stop it. At some point, every one of us stops being our job and becomes a human being, a neighbor, a citizen.
Maybe “Outside the Lines” couldn’t prove the allegations. Running with a thinly-sourced story would have been irresponsible and caused possibly lasting harm to someone who might be an innocent man. But ESPN had a victim’s statement and a conversation between that victim and a woman who appeared to be a witness. If there wasn’t enough to write about it, there certainly was enough for ESPN to approach the attorney general or a police agency other than the one that ignored Davis’s initial complaint.
Sure, the journalists involved couldn’t be neutral anymore. But they weren’t bystanders the moment a man told them he’d been molested as a child. They chose to wait on a story involving alleged sexual abuse that, according to their own reporting, began as early as age 12. How many other children could be harmed in eight years?
You can’t turn your back on such a potentially awful crime.
Dan Gainor is The Boone Pickens Fellow and the Media Research Center’s Vice President for Business and Culture. He writes frequently for Fox News Opinion. He can also be contacted on Facebook and Twitter as dangainor.