ESPN's Mark Schwarz, the reporter who spent eight years not reporting the story that a Syracuse ballboy had accused assistant coach Bernie Fine of molesting him, has now taken his own turn in the spotlight on the ESPN Rationalization Tour by talking to Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch. As Deitsch recounts, after Schwarz recorded an interview* with alleged victim Bobby Davis in 2003, the reporter waited eight years for a corroborating witness to come forward.
Finally, in November, after the news of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State broke, Davis's stepbrother Mike Lang called Schwarz's cell phone. Here's what he said:
"Bernie grabbed my leg a few times."
Oh, wait. According to Schwarz, that's what Lang said to ESPN reporters EIGHT YEARS AGO, when they interviewed him and decided not to bother pursuing the story. This is how ESPN defends its own decision. To be fair, here's the full quote, via Schwarz, via Deitsch:
"Bernie grabbed my leg a few times but he didn't really do too much to me and I don't have anything to say to you.
That's a denial? "He didn't really do too much to me"? They had one ballboy with a graphic account of being molested by Fine, and a second ballboy saying Fine had "grabbed my leg a few times." What else did they want? A tape recording of Fine's wife apparently saying her husband had behaved inappropriately with one of the alleged victims?
Right. Schwarz had that, too. Eight years ago. Schwarz brings up the tape, which Davis has said is of a phone conversation between him and Laurie Fine, when Deitsch is discussing the question of whether or not ESPN should have taken their claims to the police.
This part of the backlash—the moralizing over ESPN's supposed obligation to turn Fine over to the cops—is silly. As Schwarz says, Davis had already given the tape to the police himself. ESPN is not the district attorney's office. It's not their job to deliver a half-reported story and possibly shaky evidence to the authorities.
Their job was to report the story. And they didn't do their job. Schwarz's reasoning about why not to have given the cops the tape nicely captures ESPN's passivity and journalistic cowardice:
I know we have been criticized for that, but given that he had contacted the police and that we didn't know that much about the tape or how it was made, we really didn't have the tools to take it to the police ourselves. In fact, we could have gotten Bobby Davis in trouble if the tape was recorded illegally.
But the tape wasn't recorded illegally. ESPN determined that itself, last week, before it decided to bring out the tape to back up its Bernie Fine coverage. Nothing was stopping ESPN from checking the relevant wiretap laws back in 2003. Just like nothing was stopping it back then from hiring a voice-recognition expert to identify Laurie Fine's voice on the tape.
When ESPN decided to run the story last week, those problems suddenly became solvable. The only reason ESPN didn't take those steps eight years ago is that it didn't care enough to try.
And that's the most repulsive feature of the network's self-justifying counteroffensive. Here's Schwarz's exchange with Deitsch about why he didn't work the story more diligently over the past eight years:
On not reporting the case harder between 2003 and 2011:
"I would have taken a run at it every month of my career between 2003 and 2011 if I could have been pulled off other events and other coverage. If someone said you can either do this story, or you can do 100 NBA championship events or 17 World Series, which would you do, I would do this story and let other people cover the World Series."
Uh, no, see: What you did, actually, was the opposite of your brave hypothetical moral stance. You went ahead and covered that other stuff, and you left the case against Bernie Fine—Bernie grabbed my leg a few times—on the shelf. Because you work for ESPN.
* Correction: Schwarz's "riveting, gut-wrenching" interview was with former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, not Davis.