A Fine mess ESPN has created

By pushing a flimsy story on alleged abuse at the hands of Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine, ESPN has made a huge moral and journalistic error.

The emails and tweets from Penn State supporters are trickling in, the ones asking why the media are not clamoring for Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim to resign and his longtime assistant Bernie Fine to be jailed.

This one, from reader Jason Devitt, arrived Monday morning:

“I find it interesting that Joe Paterno absolutely had to be immediately fired, could not coach a single game more, 60 years of reputation means nothing. Yet with Bernie Fine everyone is taking the let’s-wait-until-all-the-facts-are-out-to-pass-judgment approach. Maybe people just aren’t as disgusted by sexual abuse anymore.”

Or, maybe some of us are disgusted by the irresponsible “reporting” used by Mark Schwarz, Arty Berko and ESPN to unfairly smear Bernie Fine and boost ESPN ratings.

Schwarz, Berko and ESPN remind me of Paterno, Mike McQueary and Penn State in one respect. When confronted with a difficult choice, they all did the bare, legal minimum to protect their self-interest. They failed their moral obligation.

This column is not meant to exonerate Bernie Fine, whom Syracuse put on administrative leave pending an ESPN-driven police investigation into whether he sexually molested step brothers and former SU ball boys Bobby Davis and Mike Lang in the 1970s, '80s and ‘90s. I do not know Bernie Fine. I do not have any insight into what did or did not transpire between Fine and his two accusers.

What I do know, based on Schwarz’s juvenile “reporting,” is the Worldwide Leader didn’t have nearly enough evidence to air such a reputation-damaging story. Schwarz acquired just enough information — two vague, mumbling on-camera interviews from Fine’s accusers — to protect ESPN from a lawsuit. Schwarz did the legal minimum.

Was his story sound journalism? Was his story remotely fair? No, and hell no.

Let me repeat: I’m not exonerating Bernie Fine. I don’t know him. I don’t know what he’s capable of doing and/or hiding.

What I know is you don’t destroy a person’s reputation with two highly flimsy accusations. The accusations against Fine are nothing like the accusations against Jerry Sandusky. There were multiple eyewitnesses — including a Penn State assistant coach — to Sandusky’s alleged criminal behavior. There was a three-year investigation into Sandusky, a grand jury indictment, an arrest and a public statement by the Pennsylvania state police criticizing Paterno and McQueary for failing to meet their moral obligation.

Are police, prosecutors, grand juries and eyewitnesses infallible? No. They get things wrong all the time. And maybe they screwed up the Sandusky investigation. And maybe Sandusky’s repulsive interview with Bob Costas was just another big misunderstanding.

But, for now, journalists and broadcasters were/are on solid ground condemning Sandusky and his Paterno State enablers.

There is no solid ground when it comes to the Bernie Fine investigation.

The police, ESPN, The (Syracuse) Post-Standard and Syracuse University all looked into Bobby Davis’ accusations years ago. His allegations couldn’t be corroborated or proved. His relationship with Fine appeared to be quite complicated. In 2001 — a year before Davis, now 39, told Syracuse police Fine had molested him from age 12 to 27 — Davis cut off all contact with Fine because Davis said Fine choked him over a $5,000 debt, according to The Post-Standard. Lang, now 45, was interviewed by The Post-Standard in 2003, and, according to the newspaper, Lang did not corroborate Davis’ story then.

Lang was a Syracuse ball boy years before Davis. So we’re now to believe Lang was molested by Fine but told his younger stepbrother to be a Syracuse ball boy and it was cool to hang out with Bernie Fine. Really?

In the brief snippet of interviews ESPN has aired of Davis and Lang, why didn’t Schwarz ask any probative questions? Davis and Lang are grown men who mustered the courage to go on national television and talk about being fondled by another man two decades ago but they can’t handle a few clarifying questions? Really?

Oprah Winfrey would’ve asked more difficult questions than Schwarz did.

It’s morally criminal what Schwarz and ESPN did to Bernie Fine. Even if other, more credible accusers against Fine surface, it does not justify what Schwarz did to Fine. This can’t be the standard. The mainstream media can’t simply throw out crippling, salacious rumors and then let the proof of those rumors filter in. If that’s the standard, a lot of people — including members of the media — are going to get hurt.

And that explains how this happened. Deadspin.com has gained a huge following sifting through the personal-life rumor mill of ESPN personalities/executives and athletes. In its infancy, Deadspin published a story about a married ESPN anchor’s midnight text to a female peer. Last year, Deadspin hit it big with the Brett Favre-Jenn Sterger controversy. Recently the website has published multiple stories about inappropriate sexual relationships on the Bristol campus.

If you can’t beat 'em, join 'em.

After being embarrassingly slow to react to the legitimate Penn State story, ESPN decided to “own” the Syracuse story by adopting what it believes is Deadspin’s standard for destroying a person’s reputation. The truth is, Deadspin actually has a higher standard than the Worldwide Leader.

“Honestly, no,” responded Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio when I asked via email if he would’ve run the Fine story. “And for no other reason than the fact that it seemed very presumptive and piggybacked off the Sandusky case, which irretrievably alters the public perception of the story. Davis’s story could wait another month or two.”

Like a lot of other journalists, I’m more than willing to sit back and let ESPN “own” the Bernie Fine story for now. If this latest round of investigations once again proves that Jim Boeheim is right about the character and integrity of his longtime friend and assistant, I’ll “own” the Mark Schwarz story.

Download the new FOX Sports App to get the latest news and scores from your College Basketball team.