UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Reporter defends ESPN's coverage of Bernie Fine allegations

ESPN's Mark Schwarz was sitting inside a satellite truck on the campus of Penn State when an unfamiliar number popped up on his cellphone. It was early evening on Nov. 11, a frigid night in State College, Pa., and the reporter was about to make his way toward the Old Main on campus, the site of a candlelight vigil and a moment of silence in support of the alleged victims in the child sex abuse scandal. Schwarz looked down at his phone. The area code was 315, for central New York.

"Mark, it's Mike Lang," the caller said, sounding a bit frantic. "Do you remember me?"

It had been a long time, but Schwarz did remember. Lang was the stepbrother of Bobby Davis, the former Syracuse ball boy whom Schwarz and his producer, Arty Berko, had interviewed repeatedly in 2003 after Davis had contacted ESPN's Outside the Lines with information alleging that longtime Syracuse associate head basketball coach Bernie Fine had molested him as a child.

The network ultimately opted not to run the story because, according to ESPN officials, there were no other victims who would talk, and no independent evidence to corroborate his story. In 2003, Lang was one of the men Schwarz and Berko interviewed at the behest of Davis. Then, according to Schwarz, Lang told the ESPN reporters that "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."

But Lang, who had procured Schwarz's cell number from his stepbrother, now had a very different story to tell. After reporting from the candlelight vigil, Schwarz called Lang back. The two men spoke for some time and Schwarz recalls Lang as "frantic, tearful and emotional."

Said Schwarz: "Mike said, 'This is awful. This Penn State thing is horrible. What this guy is doing to kids, and it's just like Bernie did. My brother texted me after this started and said, "Mike, they are doing it again. It is the same thing. It's awful. Just like Bernie. Just like Bernie. It's eerie. It's weird. All the same stuff he did to me, this guy did. I can't deal with it." [Mike] said, 'This was my brother, and it broke my heart and I had to call somebody.' "

That call ignited a major news cycle, and the reverberations continue today. ESPN ultimately aired a story on Nov. 17 in which Davis, now 39, and Lang, now 45, accused Fine of molesting them, starting in the late 1970s and continuing into the 1990s. Ten days later, the network ran a story (and audio tape) from a 2002 phone call that Davis recorded with Fine's wife, Laurie. Davis told ESPN that he had made the recording without Laurie Fine's knowledge because he said he needed proof for the police to believe his accusations. (ESPN said it hired a voice-recognition expert to verify the voice on the tape and that it was determined to be that of Laurie Fine.)

In the tape, the woman ESPN identified as Laurie Fine said she knew "everything that went on." After a third man came forward to accuse Bernie Fine of molesting him, Syracuse fired the coach, an assistant to Jim Boeheim for 35 years. The U.S. attorney's office in northern New York is now leading the investigation of child molestation allegations against Fine. He has denied the allegations.

ESPN has faced criticism since the story broke, most notably for its decision not to give the authorities the Bobby Davis/Laurie Fine audio tape in 2003, as well as for introducing the tape 10 days after its initial report on the allegations against Bernie Fine. The network has been accused of being scoop-happy in the wake of the Penn State scandal.

The most prominent attacks came from FoxSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock (who wrote of the "irresponsible reporting used by Mark Schwarz, Arty Berko and ESPN to unfairly smear Bernie Fine and boost ESPN ratings") and Boeheim (who advised the public to "read Jason Whitlock" when asked if the media had been premature to report Davis' and Lang's allegations).

The sports site Deadspin, a noted ESPN critic, ran a story by managing editor Tom Scocca headlined, "Eight years later, ESPN reports what it knows about the claims against Bernie Fine." Former ESPN anchor and current Sports Illustrated staffer Dan Patrick has hammered away at his ex-employer on his radio show.

Others have praised the network for its handling of the story, including one of Whitlock's colleagues, the respected Mark Kriegel, who noted that ESPN had reported a difficult story about a school with whom it has a business relationship as a major television rights holder in college basketball.

Asked how he would evaluate the coverage and reporting by ESPN regarding the Fine allegations, Kevin Quinn, the senior vice president for public affairs at Syracuse and the university's spokesperson on the story, responded via email that he was "going to politely decline direct comment." He referred SI.com to Syracuse chancellor Nancy Cantor's op-ed this week in USA Today, which addresses some of this.

Vince Doria, the network's senior vice president & director of news, used ESPN's public relations blog to explain ESPN's reporting and expounded on the topic during a recent interview with Sirius XM radio host Chris Russo.

"Why didn't we bring it [the tape] to the police?" Doria said. "It has never been our role as journalists doing that. I understand the argument, and it's a compelling one that people make right now that say, Forget about your journalistic principles here, what about the moral issues surrounding possibly endangering young people? I don't take that lightly, and it is certainly worth considering in these kind of stories moving forward.

"But anybody who has been involved in the journalistic process understands that it is not our role to supply evidence to the police. In fact, if that was our role, we likely would not get much evidence coming our way. If people thought we were working in concert with law enforcement, a lot of sources simply would not come forward and a lot of stories would never be revealed."

(It's worth noting that the Syracuse Post-Standard, which also spoke with Davis in 2003 and opted not to run a story then, addressed those same questions.)

Schwarz said "Outside The Lines" had dubbed a tape of Laurie Fine's call (it was on beta) and Berko kept the copy with his files on the case. The tape was transcribed in 2003 and OTL condensed the relevant material into a summary transcript. In 2011, ESPN transcribed the tape again, and enhanced the audio portion (Schwarz said the original was very scratchy) to better make out the audio.

An ESPN reporter since 1990, Schwarz is resolute in his belief of Davis and said his network has reported the story appropriately and made the right decision not to share the tape with authorities.

"Here is how I look at it: First of all, it was only one man's account, and secondly, the tape itself was supplied to us," Schwarz said during a 25-minute phone interview on Wednesday. "It was not as if we were party to recording it, vetting it, knowing how it was made, who was on the other end of the phone call. We had never met Laurie Fine. We didn't know her voice. And it was not a perfect recording, either. It was a little scratchy and you could hear it, but you had to strain to hear exactly what was said. We had to sweeten the audio quality to make sure we understood the words better.

"So, given the fact that you only had one individual making this claim and we only had his word that he recorded it and he had already gone to the police prior to making the tape, it wasn't as if the police did not know about Bobby Davis and Bernie Fine. Had he not gone to the police, it might have been an entirely different ballgame. We might have looked at Bobby and said, 'Bobby, this seems like a police issue to us. Do you agree with that?' We would never order or compel someone to go to the police. We would never go to police ourselves and say, 'Hey, we have this tape. We just came upon it. Someone handed it to us. You might be interested to hear it, too.' 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."

Why did Davis reach out to ESPN after speaking with the local Post-Standard? He had seen an Outside the Lines report in 2001 by Schwarz on former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, who had been abused for years by junior hockey coach Graham James. That interview, Schwarz said, stuck with Davis.

"That was one of the most riveting, gut-wrenching interviews I've ever done and the first time I have ever been exposed to the issue of sexual child abuse," Schwarz said. "I think Bobby felt safe to come to ESPN and particularly to Outside the Lines to say, 'I have something on my chest and I really want to get it out, and I am willing to tell the story.' "

In 2003, Schwarz and Berko traveled to Davis' home in Utah to interview him. (Schwarz said he has spent hundreds of hours talking with the alleged victim.) Davis then came back to Syracuse to be filmed by ESPN in front of Fine's house. Schwarz said Davis was detail-specific during his interviews. Asked directly if he found Davis credible, Schwarz did not hesitate.

"He talked about things such as, 'He ejaculated me, and he wiped me off, and it was the first time that it had ever happened and it actually felt good to me. I wondered if I was gay, and then I ran out of his house four blocks down my street to my house, crying," Schwarz said of what Davis told him. "There was a terror when he told these stories. He put himself back in that bed of Bernie Fine's when he was 12 years old.

"Arty Berko and I looked in this kid's eye and listened to his stories of terror. There was nothing that wasn't credible about them. He was reliving a train wreck every moment when we asked him these questions, and he talked in great detail about everything that happened to him. Eight years later when I visited him, he reiterated the stories in almost the same language and cadence and detail that he did eight years earlier."

Schwarz said he and Berko interviewed Davis on three different occasions in 2003, and at the time Davis gave ESPN a list of five to 10 people who might speak about Fine.

"We would call them and they would say, 'Get out of our face and nothing happened,' or 'I don't know what you are talking about,' " Schwarz said. "Mike Lang was one of those people."

Before last month, Schwarz and Berko last saw Davis in December 2003. But Schwarz kept in contact with Davis regularly via e-mail. He said he would make contact every year or two with Davis, but the contact was not extensive.

"I would just try to see how he was doing and what was going on in his life," Schwarz said. "He got married, he got divorced. He said he was done thinking about Bernie Fine, he had found God, he didn't really want to deal with it anymore because it was too painful."

Schwarz said he decided to reach out to Davis one last time a few months ago. Davis told him that he was married with two kids and that everything was great.

"I told him I was glad to hear it and I honestly felt that was pretty much the end," Schwarz said.

Today, Schwarz remains in touch with Davis on a daily basis to get reaction to the news cycle. He and Berko have been in Syracuse since last weekend and will remain there in the coming days.

"What is really critical now is Syracuse has to look at how it handled Bobby Davis when he came with those allegations in 2005, and they have to look at whether Jim Boeheim, over the course of a 36-year association with Bernie Fine, might have known more on his watch then he has said to this point," Schwarz said. "They have to look at that very carefully. Bobby Davis told us Jim Boeheim saw he and Bernie all the time in hotels and on road trips. He said to us Boeheim would come in his room and see me laying on his bed and glance at him as if to say, 'What are you doing here?' "

Boeheim has strongly denied Davis' assertion that he saw Davis in Fine's hotel room on team trips.

We asked Schwarz, the face of ESPN's reporting on this case, to respond to some additional questions:

On criticism of his reporting:

"I think the problem with people that react to any story of this nature, including Jason Whitlock and Jim Boeheim, is these are the types of stories that are difficult to fathom. We don't understand sexual child abuse as a culture and so when people do come forward, which is so very unusual, often the reaction is, 'That guy must be looking for money. That guy is looking for attention.'

"What people probably fail to consider is going to national television and saying that a man fondled my penis hundreds of times does not usually give one the kind of attention that people seek. I think Jason Whitlock and Jim Boeheim reacted to the very first thing they saw and decided it was unfair, untrue and the victims became their target. Or in the case of Whitlock, I became the target. Of course, when the story unfolded, a lot of that stuff kind of went away.

"The part that is the most difficult for me is Bobby Davis put his entire soul and reputation out there and then Jim Boeheim, a person much more respected in the community, put a knife through him. That is what makes it so hard for other people to come forward with this stuff because they see how a Boeheim crushes a Bobby Davis, and they don't want to be crushed themselves."

On why he has not yet interviewed Bernie or Laurie Fine about the allegations:

"We never really have gotten any kind of access to him through his attorney. We went at that really hard early last week. We told them we have new information that we think you should know about and before we go with it, we would like to speak to Bernie and his wife. They said, 'What is the new information?' We said, 'Well, we'll tell you that when you get Bernie and Laurie in touch with us.' They never did. They never produced them."

On the notion, which has been raised in some corners, that ESPN pushed the Bernie Fine story as hard as it has and when it did in reaction to having the journalistic equivalent of the Penn State story:

"I think that is ludicrous. One story has nothing to do with another story. The fact is, the reason why this story was aired on ESPN on Nov. 17 is because someone came out from denial to corroborate a story that we had been given by one man in 2003. It did have to do with Penn State in that Penn State created this contact between two stepbrothers who have had all of three or four conversations over 11 years. That is another misconception. Jim Boeheim called [Lang] his cousin and said, 'Isn't it interesting that his cousin ...' The fact is the two are stepbrothers and not cousins, and they are not in contact with one another at all. Bobby Davis saw Mike Lang at Mike Lang's father's funeral. That was one of their only contacts in the last 10 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."

Close

To continue enjoying content from the most trusted name is sports, please be sure to update your current bookmark.

Our updated web address is http://www.si.com.

To continue enjoying content from the most trusted name is sports, please be sure to update your current bookmark.

Just follow these 4 easy steps:

  1. Click the Chrome menu on the browser toolbar.
  2. Select Bookmarks.
  3. Select Bookmark manager.
  4. Locate your current Sports Illustrated bookmark, click the Organize menu, then select Edit. You can now easily update the web address of your Sports Illustrated bookmark.

    Our updated web address is http://www.si.com.

To continue enjoying content from the most trusted name is sports, please be sure to update your current bookmark.

Just follow these 2 easy steps:

  1. Click the Safari bookmark manager on the browser toolbar.
  2. This will open the Bookmarks Bar. In the Bookmarks Bar, select your Sports Illustrated bookmark and manually edit the Address field.

    Our updated web address is http://www.si.com.

To continue enjoying content from the most trusted name is sports, please be sure to update your current bookmark.

Just follow these 3 easy steps:

  1. Click the Firefox bookmark manager on the browser toolbar.
  2. Select Show All Bookmarks.
  3. This will open the library window. In the Library window, select your Sports Illustrated bookmark and manually edit the Location field.

    Our updated web address is http://www.si.com.
Don't Show This Again