Sports Media Watch presents 20 notable sports media stories of the year 2011. Today, the top sports media story of the year.
First, a look back at the list so far:
#20: Cardinals’ Miracle Comeback Spikes MLB Ratings
#19: James, Heat, Fuel Big NBA Ratings
#18: NBC Loses Wimbledon to ESPN
#17: Ron Franklin Fired
#16: Hank Williams Jr. Ousted
#15: FOX Gets UFC
#14: The Rise of Terry Francona
#13: Bruce Feldman Suspension
#12: Nick Charles’ Final Fight
#11: Soccer Takes Hold
#10: Comcast Acquires NBC
#9: Death of Dan Wheldon
#8: Legal Problems For Sports Media Personalities
#7: NHL Agrees to Ten-Year Extension with NBC
#6: NFL Agrees to Extensions with TV Partners
#5: Ebersol, Bodenheimer and Greenberg Exit
#4: The NFL owners’ lockout
#3: NBC Retains Rights to the Olympics
#2: The NBA owners’ lockout
#1: Abuse scandals at Penn State and Syracuse
There is very little in the world of sports that could constitute a new low, but the sex abuse scandals at Penn State and Syracuse University fit the bill. In November, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted for alleged sexual abuse of multiple children, and Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and SVP/business and finance Gary Schultz were charged with perjury and failing to report allegations of Sandusky’s abuse to proper authorities. As the only well-known figure involved, longtime football coach Joe Paterno faced the brunt of media criticism in the early days of the scandal. In 2002, Paterno was informed by graduate assistant (and later, wide receivers coach) Mike McQueary of an incident involving Sandusky and a child on the Penn State campus, but reported the information to Curley instead of the police. Less than a week after Sandusky was indicted, Paterno was fired by the Penn State board of trustees and school president Graham Spanier resigned.
The Penn State scandal became a mainstream news event like no other sports scandal in recent history, with the possible exception of the Tiger Woods infidelity scandal two years ago (recall that all four major broadcast networks broke into programming to show Woods’ press conference). CNN televised live, breaking news coverage of the student response to Paterno’s firing, the NBC newsmagazine Rock Center broadcast the first interview with Sandusky following the allegations, and CBS News hyped a very brief ‘exclusive’ interview with McQueary. Mainstream media coverage of the scandal had not always been intense, however. Writing in the American Journalism Review, former ESPN ombudsman George Solomon noted that the Patriot-News (Pennsylvania) reported on the grand jury investigation into Sandusky back in March, while other news outlets ignored the story until the November indictment (ajr.org, 11/21). The current ESPN ombudsman, The Poynter Institute, criticized the network for being too slow in acknowledging the significance of the story (espn.go.com, 11/9).
ESPN faced even more criticism for its role in college sports’ second sexual abuse scandal this year. In November, ESPN’s Mark Schwarz reported that Syracuse men’s basketball assistant coach Bernie Fine was under investigation for alleged sexual abuse of two former Syracuse ballboys. The allegations against Fine were nothing new, however. In a bizarre twist, one of Fine’s accusers, Bobby Davis, had contacted ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard in 2003. He was the only accuser at the time, and neither outlet reported the story due to a lack of corroboration. The inaction of ESPN and The Post-Standard became frankly galling after ESPN released audio of a phone call between Davis and Fine’s wife Laurie, in which the latter appeared to confirm that abuse took place. The seemingly damning tape, which led Syracuse to fire Fine, had been in the possession of both organizations for nearly ten years. ESPN and The Post-Standard were put on the defensive for not reporting the Fine allegations when first informed, and also for not reporting the allegations to the police. Both organizations argued that the tape had not provided enough corroboration to move forward in reporting the story in 2003, and that it was not the role of journalists to aid in a police investigation.
ESPN VP and director of news Vince Doria: “[A]nybody 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” (sportsillustrated.cnn.com, 12/1).
The Post Standard executive editor Michael J. Connor: “To us, handing over to police materials we didn’t feel confident enough to publish was unimaginable. … It is hard to find a precedent in modern journalism for this role of newspaper as police tipster. There is a reason for that. We serve the public best by keeping an eye on local law enforcement, not by working up their cases. If a police investigation follows our work, it ought to be because of what we published, not what we didn’t” (blog.syracuse.com, 11/30).
There was also skepticism concerning why ESPN chose to report the allegations against Fine now, as opposed to any other period in the last eight years. One of the suggested reasons, as ESPN Around the Horn panelist Kevin Blackistone explained to NPR, was that “ESPN got beat on the Penn State story, and therefore they went into their archives and pulled out this very salacious tape to get into their own sex abuse scandal involving a coach and a child” (NPR, 12/2). ESPN’s Doria explained that the network’s rationale for reporting the story was due to the existence of a second alleged victim to corroborate the 2003 claims (frontrow.espn.go.com, 11/28). Of course, it should be pointed out that some of the criticism of ESPN and the media in general was generated by extreme partisans at Penn State and Syracuse, who viewed coverage of the scandals as some sort of double-standard laden personal affront. It was no coincidence, after all, that Penn State students overturned a media truck during campus unrest following Paterno’s firing.
Even if some of the criticism had less than objective origins, the media — specifically ESPN — did not do a particularly good job reporting either of these stories. Perhaps that can be expected; after all, the Penn State and Syracuse scandals marked new lows in American sport. We have had riots in the stands (Ron Artest and Mike Milbury before him), widespread doping (myriad examples), a player murder a teammate and a coach try to cover it up (Baylor, previous owner of the worst college sports scandal), alleged sexual assaults of adults, including two allegations in the span of one year by a single athlete (Ben Roethlisberger), and now we’ve had alleged sexual assaults of minors. What’s next?