Covering sexual abuse and coaches

A month ago Joe Paterno won his 409th game as football coach at Penn State University to become the all-time Division I leader in coaching victories.

Also in early November, the Syracuse University coaching duo of head coach Jim Boeheim and assistant coach Bernie Fine began their 36th season together on the bench in what looks like a promising year, with the Orangemen ranked number one in early December.

As December begins, both Paterno and Fine are done coaching, Paterno fired for not doing enough to put a stop to sexual abuse by a coach in his program, Fine for his alleged role in the sexual abuse of boys through their sports programs. For Paterno, the end came when a grand jury indicted Jerry Sandusky — Paterno’s longtime friend, retired assistant coach and once heir to take over the Nittany Lions — on multiple counts of sexually abusing boys, including on the Happy Valley campus.

Unlike Sandusky, Fine has not been charged with any crimes as of yet, and may not be due to statute of limitations issues. He is the target of local and federal investigations after three men came forward and said Fine abused them sexually when they helped out the Syracuse team as ball boys when they were in their teens. The university at first put Fine on administrative leave, but fired him a week later when a tape came out from 2002 in which Fine’s wife — secretly taped by one of the men claiming abuse — indicates her husband of 28 years might target young boys.

While the two matters have much in common, including the nature of the allegations and timing, when it comes to placing responsibility on why these matters did not come to light earlier, the two stories take very different paths. At Penn State, the scandal for what is being looked at as a cover-up falls on the football program and the administration; the university also fired its president and has placed other administrators on leave after they were indicted for lying to the grand jury.

In Syracuse, the cries from the public of failure to protect children have been aimed at two longtime media: the Syracuse Post-Standard and ESPN.

ESPN broke the story of Fine’s being accused of abuse by a former ball boy the night of Nov. 17. In doing so, the Connecticut-based sports network also broke with journalistic convention. It not only named the two men who said they were victimized sexually by Fine, but used their comments and faces on camera.

Bobby Davis, now 39, and his step-brother, Mike Lang, now 45, spoke at length with ESPN about what they said was abuse over three decades by Fine, years that for Davis continued from his pre-teens into his late 20s. Davis outlined road trips where the abuse occurred, he said, with coach Boeheim seeing him in Fine’s room and in the same bed.

As the public and most of the media immediately tried to grasp the meaning of this story while still struggling with the Penn State situation, both ESPN and the Post-Standard already had a huge jump on the story. Separately, after Davis had first gone to the Syracuse City Police Department in 2002, he had approached first the newspaper and then the sports network with his story.

After police had told him the statute of limitations had expired, Davis brought his accusations to the Post-Standard. The newspaper quietly put two reporters on the story to first talk to Davis at length and then try to corroborate his story.

PS Executive Editor Mike Connor, in a lengthy column to readers Nov. 20, said the two reporters worked for six months talking to dozens of people. No one — not even those who Davis said had also been abused — backed up his story.

To see if the paper had a publishable story, the two reporters wrote what they had, a 140-inch narration of Davis’ charges. A dozen editors and reporters met in a story meeting; the end result was that the paper did not have a story that met the standard to publish.

After being told that by the Post-Standard, Davis went to ESPN, which conducted a similar investigation and came to a similar conclusion. In 2003, ESPN reporter Mark Schultz said, everyone, including Lang, denied that Fine had been abusive to them or Davis.

And finally, Davis took his complaints to Syracuse University in 2005. The university conducted a fourth independent investigation, finding nothing to substantiate Davis’ claims.

Reaction from the public regarding the explanations about why nothing was done from 2002 to 2005 bounced between confusion and anger. What has changed since 2002, several people asked on the online forums for the newspaper and network, other than the Penn State scandal coming to light?

The only change in the initial ESPN report a few weeks ago from what had been learned eight years ago is that now Lang said he too had been abused by Fine.

But much of the anger was aimed toward Boeheim, whose unequivocal defense of Fine rankled child abuse victims and advocates. Boeheim, who has known Fine for almost 50 years since both were part of the Syracuse University basketball team in the mid-1960s, said Davis and Lang were using the Penn State story to make money and get attention.

Two days later when the Orangemen played in the Carrier Dome for the first time in 35 years without Fine on the bench, a chair in his usual spot was left empty. Players touched it as a gesture of support before the game. Fine issued a statement saying he was innocent of all accusations as the Syracuse Police Department and university began new investigations. Everyone seemed content to let the matters be resolved in that fashion.

Then on Sunday, Nov. 27, readers of the Post-Standard and viewers of ESPN woke up to two stories that drastically altered the tone of the situation.

The Post-Standard had an interview with a third man who said he was a victim. Zach Tomaselli of Maine said Fine had abused him in 2002 in a Pittsburgh hotel room during a road trip the Orangemen took. What made Tomaselli’s accusation different from Davis’ and Lang’s is that the statute of limitations might not have run out.

Tomaselli’s story that Sunday still generated some skepticism. His own father called him a liar and said his son never took a road trip to Pittsburgh with the team. Tomaselli himself has been charged with sexually abusing a teenage boy in Maine.

But while Tomaselli’s claims raised questions, the voice that ESPN was playing that morning did not. The network aired portions of a tape made in 2002 when Davis secretly recorded Fine’s wife, Laurie, during a discussion about what Davis said concerning his abuse by Fine.

ESPN said a voice expert confirmed that it was Laurie Fine on the tape. While she never directly backs up Davis’ claims, she does not deny them or show any outrage or surprise. She instead says her husband had issues regarding attraction to men and that she saw something happen in her house one night between Fine and Davis. She told Davis that had it been another woman, she would have known what to do. She also implies what Davis told the network in that new story. When he was 18, he and Laurie Fine had a sexual relationship.

The tape changed everything for Orange fans.

By the end of the day, SU had taken Fine off administrative leave and fired him immediately. “We do not tolerate abuse,’’ Chancellor Nancy Cantor said, adding the university did not know of the tape during its 2005 investigation. Had it known, she said, Fine would have been fired then.

Even Boeheim backed off his full support of Fine, saying he agreed with the firing. “The allegations that have come forth today are disturbing and deeply troubling,’’ he said.

Fans on Internet forums said they too thought the tape went a long way in confirming Davis’ story. Unlike when Penn State fired Paterno, no students rioted on the SU campus; at the team’s next game 48 hours later in the Carrier Dome, Boeheim received a standing ovation during warm-ups. Fine’s empty chair was gone.

In a post-game press conference after Syracuse’s seventh win of the season that night, Boeheim fielded more questions about the investigation than he did about his team in a press room crammed with at least twice the number of journalists as usual. He said he would wait for the full results of the investigation to see what had happened on his watch.

The next morning, the focus shifted from Boeheim back to the original two news sources of the story. Now the public learned that in the disclosures a week earlier about why no story had been published in 2002 or 2003, neither the Post-Standard nor ESPN had fully disclosed everything it had learned.

For while ESPN did break the story of the Laurie Fine tape made in 2003, it neglected to say it had actually had the tape since 2003.

And the Post-Standard, which wrote about the tape after ESPN’s story Sunday, had heard the tape in 2002. Davis had made the recording at the request of the newspaper in an attempt to have his story backed up for publication.

Both the paper and the network, after listening to the tape years ago, decided independently that it was not enough to go on. While Connor again wrote a column detailing that decision, as did ESPN’s Schultz, they quickly ran into criticism.

Media across the country called into question the news judgment of both news organizations. Readers of the Post-Standard have hammered the paper this week with calls and emails saying the paper had a moral obligation to at least have Davis give the tape to police or the university, wondering how Connor and other editors could live with themselves knowing they might have let Fine continue his abuse for eight more years. ESPN has been charged with managing the story to boost ratings after it was embarrassingly behind on the Penn State story.

Cantor said both were wrong in not releasing the tape to the university or police. Had we been given the tape in 2005, Cantor wrote in a USA Today Op-Ed column, we would have gone straight to the authorities. She said both ESPN and the Post-Standard owed better explanations for withholding the tape for almost 10 years.

Other than losing his job of 35 years, Fine’s status has changed not a whit from before the allegations went public two weeks ago. Although under investigation, which has included searches of his home and SU basketball office, he has yet to be charged with any crime. His wife, whom some have said should be charged for remaining silent while knowing child sexual abuse was going on in her home, has also not been charged with any crime.

Followers of the Orangemen and the story seem content to follow Boeheim’s example and wait for the investigation to conclude before offering further thoughts on Bernie Fine. But when it comes to the two news sources that broke the story, both the Post-Standard and ESPN will have to work hard to repair what seems to be a broken trust with its readers and viewers.

 Pat Louise is a 1984 (Newhouse) and 2001 (Whitman) graduate of Syracuse University. Her journalism career has included six years at the Syracuse Post-Standard, including three years as a sports editor heading up coverage of SU sports. She currently lives in update New York, where she is publisher of a community weekly newspaper and teaches journalism at Utica College.


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