ESPN, Syracuse, and a Moral Obligation to Report

The sports world has been impacted again, unfortunately, by allegations that an assistant coach at high profile athletic program sexual assaulted young boys. Former Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine has been accused of molesting at least three individuals, all of whom had ties to the basketball program serving as ball boys.

This is the second time, in recent weeks, that allegations of sexual assault has impacted the sports world. Penn State is still dealing with the allegations involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, which it will for some time.

Syracuse’s case is bizarre story. It is one that is just beginning to be played out, and is made even more bizarre by the fact that ESPN had this story in 2002. At that time, the media giant was given a tape from one of the alleged victims that was allegedly the voice of Fine’s wife, Laura, admitting to knowing of the abuse. ESPN had the tape since 2002 and decided not to report at that time, but did hold onto the tape. On Sunday, ESPN aired the tape after additional allegations against Fine had been made.

There is a question that must be asked, and has been asked by others. Did ESPN have a moral obligation to provide New York authorities with a copy of the tape, even though, it says, the accuser had given the tape to the police?

This is a murky question and one that must take into account various situations, including a reporter’s responsibility and an individual’s responsibility to protect children.

In my opinion, ESPN failed in its moral obligation to report the story to the authorities by holding onto the tape for nearly 10 years. Then again, the reason for this opinion is murky and can be debated.

First, ESPN is a multimedia organization that has a journalism footprint, albeit one that suffers from a conflict of interest from time to time. A reporter’s primary role is to report the story, as it develops, without influencing or impacting the story one way or another. It is a hard code to follow at times, because of various circumstances. From a merely journalistic perspective, it is not a reporter’s responsibility to provide news tips to organizations that the reporter seeks to cover. For instance, a sports reporter would not share game film he or she has collected on one team and give it to another. In the same way, a political reporter would not share campaign information from one campaign to another campaign.

ESPN defenders will argue that this is the company’s only role, in regards to its journalism business. From a professional standpoint, this could be correct. Yet, this is a situation that goes beyond professional ethics and responsibilities. It must include an individual’s moral obligation to protect children.

The Fine case is not a normal news story. ESPN did not receive information regarding point shaving or recruiting violations, but, instead, information regarding an alleged sexual assault of a child. The normal rules of journalism ethics and a reporter’s responsibility do not apply in this situation.

In receiving a tape from an alleged sexual assault victim purporting to be the abuser’s wife admitting to the assault, ESPN was in receipt of critical information. This information could have been used in a police investigation. ESPN claims the accuser provided authorities with the tape, but to merely claim that as an excuse to do nothing is indefensible. There is a human responsibility to make sure that the information is given to the proper individuals, while maintaing the right to report the case.

ESPN’s decision to hold the tape was based on journalism ethics and ignored the individual’s responsibility to protect children. ESPN is not separated from this responsibility.

There is an element of irony that should not be missed in ESPN’s handling of the Fine allegations. The network’s analysts were among those who claimed former Penn State coach Joe Paterno should be fired for failing to uphold a moral obligation to report an abuse. In this case, with ESPN directly involved, the network is choosing to take a protective stance and argue it had no such obligation. This baseless defense shows ESPN does not get the larger picture, which is that children were allegedly abused.

As a former journalist and now a pastor, it is my hope that journalism schools will adapt their ethics classes to teach perspective reporters how to handle these difficult moral situations. Reporters must not forget that while they report on a story, they also maintain their humanity, which, then, calls us to care for the “least of these” in our society, especially children.

Hopefully, ESPN will learn from this and adapt its coverage here forward.

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