Experts and media analyze the frenzy that engulfed SU due to Fine allegations last November
Daily Orange file photo
The national spotlight momentarily shifted from Pennsylvania State University and glared at Syracuse University.
Last November, the allegations against Bernie Fine were just being made public — two former ball boys had come forward and accused the then-associate head coach for men’s basketball of sexually abusing them as boys.
The allegations drew comparisons to the turmoil at Penn State, where former football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had just been charged with multiple counts of child sex abuse. The then-unfolding drama at Penn State made the media sensitive to stories about predatory coaches, which elevated coverage and attention to the Fine story, experts said.
“The notion of men molesting boys was out there,” said David Rubin, a media law professor at Syracuse University. “Right on the heels of Penn State, it’s difficult for the media to ignore that story.”
Sandusky is now serving a 30- to 60-year prison sentence after being found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse in June. Penn State authorities, including former university President Graham Spanier, await trial for fostering a culture of silence that permitted Sandusky to prey on young boys for years.
In Syracuse, federal authorities dropped the investigation into Fine in early November, nearly a year after the allegations were made public by ESPN and the former associate coach for men’s basketball was fired from the university. Fine’s wife is currently suing ESPN for libel.
The differences between the two cases are apparent now, but as details of Sandusky’s crimes emerged from Penn State in October 2011, all coaches were “under siege,” said Kathleen Hessert, founder of Sports Media Challenge, an organization that provides media training and crisis management to athletes and sports organizations. Hessert monitored social media for the Penn State athletics department when charges were first levied against Sandusky.
The timing of the sexual abuse allegations against Fine stoked fears that SU’s upper administration may have also failed to report abuse. The perceived similarities to the situation at Penn State caused media and the public to elevate the intensity of the allegations against Fine, Hessert said.
“Any association, whether it’s real or not real, especially at the time, would mean that the Bernie Fine story would be elevated,” she said.
In November 2011, about a week and a half after the Penn State story broke, ESPN aired the initial story in which stepbrothers Bobby Davis and Mike Lang accused Fine of molesting them as boys. Davis first approached ESPN and The Post-Standard with sexual abuse allegations in 2002, but neither media outlet could corroborate the story. Davis went to the Syracuse Police Department in 2002, but was told the statute of limitations had expired.
Once ESPN broke the allegations against Fine in 2011, The Post-Standard was obligated to follow the story, said Michael Connor, executive editor of the Syracuse newspaper. Ignoring the story at that point would have been “journalistically irresponsible,” he said.
Having known about the allegations since 2002, The Post-Standard was in a unique position — it was part of the story. Reporting on the allegations meant revisiting the newspaper’s decision to not publish Davis’ allegations nine years earlier.
“Everything we did came under scrutiny,” Connor said.
The Post-Standard came under fire locally and nationally, with many superimposing the indignation they felt toward Penn State onto the situation at SU, Connor said. The thought that the newspaper might have allowed “horrifying behavior” to continue by not publishing the story in 2002 was tormenting.
“It reopened a kind of agonizing doubt we had gone through nine years ago,” Connor said. “That doubt haunts and it was intensified greatly a year ago.”
A year removed from Fine’s firing from the university, Connor stands by the paper’s reporting, but said editors could have invited “other people into the conversation” sooner. For example, Connor said the paper’s editors could have reached out to the victim advocacy community sooner, instead of keeping discussions regarding the Fine story confined to the newsroom.
Rubin, the media law professor at SU, said media have to be “exceedingly careful” in reporting allegations on all sides, as the “damage that’s done to the (accused) individual’s reputation is irreparable.” He added that the verdict remains out on whether ESPN behaved responsibly in 2011 by airing the story detailing the allegations against Fine. More details need to be known about the sport network’s “state of mind” when it first published the story, Rubin said.
Some of this hinges on how thoroughly ESPN understood the meaning of a recorded phone conversation in which Fine’s wife, Laurie, appears to acknowledge a sexual relationship between her husband and Davis, Rubin said. Laurie Fine has since filed a lawsuit against ESPN for libel. ESPN declined to comment for this story, citing the pending litigation.
Ed Colomb, a sexual abuse survivor and client at Vera House, said society and media, at large, make it difficult for those who have been sexually abused to come forward. Colomb said he believes there’s a general lack of education in media and the public regarding sexual abuse, pointing to some individuals’ initial reactions to the allegations against Fine.
Instead of understanding the weight of the allegations levied by Davis and Lang, fans at a Syracuse basketball game gave Jim Boeheim, men’s basketball head coach, a standing ovation for initially defending his longtime associate coach. Boeheim later issued a statement apologizing for accusing Davis and Lang of lying, and for any statements that may have been “insensitive to victims of abuse.”
“When the allegations broke, it wasn’t about the victims,” Colomb said. “It was about SU.”
Connor, the executive editor at The Post-Standard, advised caution and emphasized that the U.S. Attorney’s decision to drop the investigation into the allegations earlier this month “did not address, at least publicly, truth or falseness in the accusations.”
Said Connor: “I think we must resist the temptation to wrap it all up in a tidy narrative and think we know exactly what happened.”
Published on November 26, 2012 at 3:03 am