Eight Years Later, ESPN Reports What It Knows About The Claims Against Bernie Fine

"I'm not Joe Paterno, I knew nothing," Bob Ley said on ESPN's Outside the Lines. Ley was quoting Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim, who was responding to the investigation of sex-abuse claims against assistant coach Bernie Fine.

So far, if there's a Joe Paterno in the Fine case—the trusted authority figure who was aware of sexual abuse claims and didn't do anything about them—it would seem to be ESPN itself.

Fine's lead accuser, Bobby Davis, approached the network eight years ago with his story, including a tape of what seems to be a phone conversation between Davis and Fine's wife, Laurie, in which she acknowledges inappropriate behavior by her husband. As ESPN tells it:

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Davis first gave the tape to ESPN in 2003. At the time, ESPN did not report Davis' accusations, or report the contents of the tape, because no one else would corroborate his story.

After a second man said this month that he was also molested by Fine (that man is Mike Lang, Davis' step brother), ESPN hired a voice-recognition expert who said the voice on the tape matches the voice of Laurie Fine.

Why not hire the voice-recognition expert in 2003? The tape didn't get any better since then. Nor did it get any worse—according to CNN, a nephew of Laurie Fine says that the recording has been edited, which is what she also reportedly told the Syracuse Post-Standard when Davis was originally trying to interest ESPN and other media in his story.

The Bernie Fine story is not the Jerry Sandusky story. It's much messier. The charges against Penn State's Sandusky were written up in a detailed grand jury report, citing multiple victims and witnesses. Fine's lead accuser, Davis—a former Syracuse ballboy—admits he got money from the coach and says he had a sexual affair with Laurie Fine as well. The second accuser is Davis's stepbrother, and the third accuser is an accused child molester himself, whose own father disputes his story about when and where he was alone with Fine. The statute of limitations on the alleged crimes has apparently passed.

Eight years ago, with only one accuser and a sketchy audiotape—well, a responsible, lawyer-haunted news operation might have looked at the whole awkward thing and decided it was more trouble than it was worth. Especially if that news operation was in the business of televising college basketball, and Syracuse had just won the national championship. Why antagonize everybody over some creepy and shakily sourced story about some handsy assistant coach?

One reason to have gone ahead and antagonized some people: Outside the Lines is supposed to do investigative reporting. And most investigative reporters start with material that editors and lawyers wouldn't be willing to publish on its own.

Another reason: Now that there's a third accuser, the time frame for Fine's purported misbehavior has moved all the way up from the '80s to 2002. Had ESPN's reporters (or police following up on an ESPN investigation) turned up that accuser in 2003, those claims would have been within the statute of limitations.

But ESPN didn't think the story was worth doing then. What changed? Not the quality of the evidence, really—yes, the second accuser came forward recently, but as a source, he was not exactly independent of the original accuser. ESPN's reporting last week toggled oddly between present and past tense ("Davis says" ... "Davis described") because the backbone of the segment was the interview they'd had in the can since 2003.

"Eight years later, his story is remarkably consistent," ESPN reporter Mark Schwarz said, helpfully.

The difference between then and now is the existence of the Sandusky story. Not because it brought out an additional accuser, but because it put pressure on ESPN. The network was beaten badly on covering the Penn State scandal, and here it had another potential abuse story gathering dust. So rather than getting beaten again, ESPN decided it was time to act like it knew the things it had known all along.

Also: A Comprehensive Timeline Of The Child Sex Abuse Allegations Against Bernie Fine