'Shop Talk': ESPN Right To Hold Syracuse Tape?

Dec 2, 2011
Originally published on December 2, 2011 12:02 pm
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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting the chairs for a shape-up this week are author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and author Arsalan Iftikhar, sportswriter and journalism professor Kevin Blackistone and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Great. How about you?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Hey, good man.

IZRAEL: Making it work, brother. All right. Let's get some things started. Last month, I said the Penn State football child sex abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky might be one of the worst scandals ever in college football. Well, looks like I misspoke. Now, college basketball is suffering the same kind of disgrace.

Federal authorities are investigating Syracuse University's former assistant basketball coach, Bernie Fine, for molesting young boys. He was fired Sunday after an audio tape surfaced of a phone call between Fine's wife Laurie and one of Fine's accusers.

Michel, we got some tape on that, right?

MARTIN: We do. And before I play it, I will tell you that I don't know that this is appropriate for everyone who might be listening, so I just want to give people a chance to, you know, turn down the dial for a second if you don't feel it's appropriate.

This tape is from ESPN and here it is. It's a conversation between a young man named Bobby Davis and it's allegedly between Mr. Davis and Laurie Fine, who is Bernie Fine's wife.


LAURIE FINE: Well, what did he want you to do? You can be honest with me.

BOBBY DAVIS: It was basically what he always does.

FINE: What? He wants you to grab him?

DAVIS: (Beep) He's tried to make me - he tried to make me grab him. I mean, at first, when he grabbed me and started, you know, touching me...

FINE: But you never had any oral sex with him?


FINE: No...

DAVIS: He - I think he would want to, but...

FINE: Oh, of course he would.

DAVIS: But...

FINE: Why wouldn't he?



MARTIN: Yeah. So, Jimi, I have to say, that conversation was actually recorded in 2002, which, Jimi, you know, obviously is one of the things that people are raising eyebrows, which is that if this tape existed in 2002 why are we hearing about it now?


IZRAEL: Yeah. Kevin, why don't you - you're the sports guy. You're the journalist.


IZRAEL: Why don't you catch us up on that? How come this tape just recently surfaced?

BLACKISTONE: And full disclosure, I earn a paycheck from ESPN. Why did it just surface? There are a lot of reasons for that. The conspiracy reason is 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.

The reason from ESPN is because, at that time in 2002, when they had their reporter, Mark Schwarz, and his producer, Arty Berko, chasing it, they could not corroborate that that was, in fact, Laurie Fine's voice. And so, as a result - and there was no police action and they could find no corroboration for this child's accusations at the time. They didn't pursue it as strongly as they are now.

MARTIN: How come they couldn't corroborate it?

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: Sorry. But why couldn't they? If they can corroborate it now, why couldn't they corroborate it then? What steps are different?

IZRAEL: Right.

BLACKISTONE: Well, because I think they didn't take the right steps. Had I been on that story and I think a lot of journalists been on that story, I would have used the corroboration of taking the tape directly to the Fines and having them corroborate it. ESPN, for whatever reasons, waited until they said that they found a videotape with her voice on it and then compared the two and now have come out with this information.

IZRAEL: You know what? I got to say, my background is in investigative journalism and, you know, that makes a little sense to me because, in the digital age, you really can't go very far with a piece of tape and, you know, no other serious viable leads. And even the inquiry, just the asking questions might make a reporter, you know, on the - put a reporter on the bad side of a defamation suit. I don't know.

MARTIN: So you're saying you find it defensible? You find ESPN's actions defensible here?

IZRAEL: I don't. But I...

MARTIN: You do not?

IZRAEL: I don't, but I understand why they were sitting on that tape because there's nothing else there. It's just a piece of tape. And like I said, in this digital age anybody can make a piece of tape.

MARTIN: Arsalan, you're our attorney here.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I mean just from a journalistic vantage point, Kevin and I were talking about this before the show, I mean I am totally going to call out ESPN on this one. I mean in 2002 they got this audiotape where the wife of the coach said that she actually witnessed molestation in their own basement. You know, from my perspective, you don't need any more corroboration than that. This is not hearsay. This is directly from the horse's mouth. It could've been very easy - they could've very easily verified whether or not it was her audio, her voice on the tape.

I think that, you know, had there been a tape of, you know, Jerry Sandusky's wife saying the same thing, that she witnessed things, I think that would've been a reportable story as well.

BLACKISTONE: But that's really - but that's not enough. I mean you have to corroborate. You just can't say that this is somebody's voice and therefore we're going to go with it. If, in fact, it turns out not to be that's person's voice, then you have opened yourself up to a lawsuit. I am troubled, however, that they sat on the tape for as long as they did, considering the nature of what the tape was about.

MARTIN: Ruben, what do you think?

NAVARRETTE: I would disagree with my friend Kevin on this. I think that, well, I agree with the part about it was wrong to sit on the tape. The problem isn't that they couldn't corroborate the voice to say who it was. The problem was they waited around until they had another opportunity, that that opportunity fell in their lap. There's a difference between being proactive and reactive as a journalist. They should've taken the initial tape and then made an attempt to establish the authenticity of the tape...


NAVARRETTE: ...as was said at that point. The idea that somehow you wait until another videotape surfaces and then wha-ha, we have a chance to do that, that's not journalism. That's answering the phone when it rings. That's not the same thing. And...

BLACKISTONE: Well, I think, yeah...

NAVARRETTE: It makes – it brings to me a very interesting question here. And if you fault ESPN for this, the question is either Choice A, they don't take this kind of crime seriously - I hope that's not true; Choice B, they did take it seriously and they were so freaked out by the nature of the story, they treated it as radioactive and they were afraid to report it. Take your pick. Neither one of those is a good scenario.

MARTIN: Can I jump on this, Ruben, for a second, because I think that...


MARTIN: ...it is worth pointing out that what does ESPN stand for?

IFTIKHAR: Entertainment.

MARTIN: Entertainment Sports Television Network.


MARTIN: And I think that...

Well, I think that - I think that there's this ambivalence and they're not the only organization...

NAVARRETTE: But they're morphing into a news - a news entity.

MARTIN: Hold on a second. Hold on. Let me just clarify my point.


MARTIN: They're not the only organization to sort of have this identity crisis, because news is prestigious but it's not profitable, okay?


MARTIN: And there are a lot of news organizations, even news organizations who think that they are news organizations, who have their - both feet in entertainment because that's where the money is.

NAVARRETTE: I hear you.

MARTIN: And they have not taught people how to pursue these stories. They don't have the expertise in-house. They don't have the institutional (unintelligible)...

BLACKISTONE: I hear you.

MARTIN: They don't have the track record. So the problem I have...

NAVARRETTE: So Michel, you're making my point for me. You're making my point for me.

MARTIN: No, I am. I am making your point.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. You're saying you need to teach these people how to do it.

MARTIN: They need to teach these people how to do it, or the other, but the other question I have here is sort of the reflexive defensiveness around people in the sports establishment. I'll just say I was watching a college basketball game last night where one of the coaches grabbed a player around the throat. Now, I was watching the whole thing, so what was the precipitating event? I don't know. I was watching, but immediately the sportscasters start defending the coach saying, oh, he's a great guy. He really cares about his players. And I'm like, excuse me, if that was my son and he grabbed my kid around the throat, he'd be getting a phone call. And so I guess what I'm saying is I think both - Ruben, I'm just agreeing with you - I'm saying that I just think there's this reflexive defensiveness around these guys...

IFTIKHAR: Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...within the certain community...


MARTIN: ...that mitigates against taking these kinds of things seriously.

BLACKISTONE: Well, let me just say this about ESPN journalistically.

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Kevin.

BLACKISTONE: They don't need any defense. The people who work in news at ESPN are people who worked in newspapers for a long time. Vince Doria...

NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.

BLACKISTONE: ...a longtime Boston Globe sports editor is a guy over news. Mark Schwarz, who is on the story, has actually broken a similar type of story before. I think the problem with ESPN, and I've voiced this with them before, I've written it before, I've said it before, is the fact that they continue to become a part of the story in which they are covering and that is not what journalism is supposed to be about. We are supposed to cover stories and not be a part of the story. And they have to find a way going forward from here not to make themselves part of the story.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop. We're speaking with a sports writer and journalism professor, Kevin Blackistone. That's who was talking just now. Also with us, of course, Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney, and editor and author Arsalan Iftikhar, and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Okay. Now for some good news. It seems like Santa's workshop has turned out some magic this season. Ho, ho, ho. Because the NBA lockout, it's been lifted. Players returned to team facilities yesterday. Michel, we got a clip, yeah?

MARTIN: I do. This is - and no language advisory needed for this one. Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh is talking about being back on the first day.


CHRIS BOSH: The way last year ended, you know, we're pretty eager to get back. It's, you know, good to be back in here, it's a little late, but yeah, you know, we'll take it as better late than never.

MARTIN: I thought it was Barry White for a minute, but I guess not.

IZRAEL: Yeah. We would know if Chris was playing anyway, so...

MARTIN: Stop it. Oh no. Oh no.


IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. Kevin, was it the millionaires or the billionaires who caved and why?

BLACKISTONE: And it was the millionaires who caved. The reason is because NBA players very much represent the one percent and the 99 percent. You got a few guys who can make a bunch of money and have endorsements and go overseas and pick up a paycheck, and they weren't that worried about this thing, although they'd like to get back on the floor. And you have a bunch of other guys who don't have that luxury. This is their paycheck. They don't have the big endorsements and they needed to get paid and they were willing to break it down to a 50/50 split with the owner. I think the owners, I think it came out to 51/49, but I would say the owners won.

IZRAEL: But, you know, A-Train, just when we thought you were going to start watching figure skating...

IFTIKHAR: I know, right?

IZRAEL: Yeah. Oh.

MARTIN: Was that a dig at me? Since some people know that I broke my arm ice-skating earlier this week...


MARTIN: Were you being mean? Jimi, were you being mean to me in my weakened condition?

IZRAEL: Me? Not me.


IZRAEL: Hey, A-Train...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

IZRAEL: ...what's your read of this?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, on behalf of all NBA junkies, it's nice to finally get our fix. And I would like to point out that I predicted Christmas Day, opening day. It's Christmas day. It's 66 games. What's exciting for NBA fans, and especially Boston Celtics fans like myself, the shorter season for our aging Celtics is going to be helpful. What's interesting is going to be, you know, looking at potential blockbuster deals. You know, there's been whispers of a Chris Paul for a John Rondeau trade, which would be awesome. We have the Bynum for - Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard potential trade. So it'll be interesting to see how free agent - the 16 days of free agency will play out into the NBA season.

IZRAEL: Ruben, you're more of a football fan, right?

NAVARRETTE: Oh, no doubt. No doubt.


NAVARRETTE: I think the problem here - and this reminds me of that fact - the problem here with any kind of strike is you don't want to get to a point where there is a blackout or there's a strike and there's no games and then people just decide, oh, I didn't miss that, you know? There's no basketball. There's football. There's other things. I didn't miss it. And so I think that's always something that they play with. They don't want to push their hand too far to the point where there is sort of a lockout, and then all of a sudden you think, well, you've got other sports out there to, you've got plenty of choices to keep you busy. But, you know, for those people who like basketball, then, you know, it's great. It worked out for the best. It probably doesn't impact the majority of Americans who are neither millionaires nor billionaires.

MARTIN: Why don't you like basketball more, Ruben, if you don't mind my asking?

NAVARRETTE: Well, I like...

IFTIKHAR: Because San Diego doesn't have a team.


NAVARRETTE: Well, I've always felt this way.

MARTIN: He has a TV, though, right?

NAVARRETTE: I felt this way even when I was living in Dallas and the Mavericks were pretty decent back then too. They're obviously much better now. But I just like the rhythm of the football game. I like the shorter season with a football game. It's one of the reasons it's hard to keep your enthusiasm in a baseball season.


NAVARRETTE: So long. So many games, you know.

But - and it's just slower, it moves slower. Now, basketball is fast but it's, it doesn't have that sort of, I don't know, that sort of contact enthusiasm, excitement I get from football.

MARTIN: Hmm. Interesting.

BLACKISTONE: Yeah. We've got to talk about it one day.

MARTIN: Jimi, what about you? Yeah, that's interesting. I always like to know. Jimi, what about you?

IZRAEL: Well, I live in Cleveland. It's kind of where sports fans come to die so it's like...


IZRAEL: So it feels like we have no basketball whether we do or not. Oh yeah. By the way, go Cavs.


MARTIN: Aw, I'm glad to see you're still, you know, loyal despite, you know, ughh, the defection...


MARTIN: ...from last year. For people don't know what I'm talking about, LeBron James famously left the Cavs to head to Miami. And the longest...

NAVARRETTE: He took his talents...

MARTIN: He took his talents to Miami. The longest kind of Hamlet thing ever in history. Anyway...

NAVARRETTE: Cleveland is still ticked off that LeBron left and Jimi stayed.




MARTIN: Don't make me laugh. It hurts. Before we go, before we let you go, do you mind if I check your thoughts on this one story? It's the question of how marijuana should be classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency, that two governors, Christine Gregoire of Washington, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, both kind of iconoclastic, you know, figures - the current classification called Schedule I says that there's no accepted medical uses, and that creates some problems for regulators now that a lot of states are actually allowing marijuana for medicinal purposes. According to the L.A. Times, 16 states and the District of Columbia currently allow using marijuana as medicine. Ten more states are considering it. That's almost half. But the Obama demonstration says no dice.

Ruben, you're in California, one of those states.


MARTIN: What is the talk about this? And forgive me, I'm not trying to imply that all of you have any particular expertise on marijuana. I'm just curious about this as a current policy question...



MARTIN: Ruben.

NAVARRETTE: I think you have that natural tension, obviously, between the rights of the states and the federal government in a case like this. And you know, the big debate here obviously was the ballot initiative to legalize marijuana use beyond the medical use and create these dispensaries around the state, and it brought us in this huge discussion about legalizing drugs. And we're caught in this wrinkle where you have enormous amounts of drugs coming into California. There was just a discovery just a couple days ago of yet another drug tunnel, the most sophisticated they've seen in a while, coming from Tijuana into San Diego, and you know, many tons, more than 10 tons of stuff found - all marijuana - in the tunnels. And so they have the stuff coming in. They have a user base that uses it, but when you get to the medical marijuana issue, it just sort of divides up, I think, along the lines of how you feel about drug use in general. And I think where Californians have come down lately is they just can't get over that hurdle of making it more readily available. So if you have a need for medical marijuana, expect to have to go through all that rigmarole and all the paperwork, and you know, get it where you're going to get it, but it's not going to be widely available, I think, for some time.

MARTIN: Arsalan, you're the attorney here and the civil rights guy. What do you think?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, it's interesting. Under the Controlled Substance Act, you know, as you mentioned, marijuana is a Schedule I, which shows no medical use and a high potential for abuse. And cocaine, which we all know is a hell of a drug, is actually a Schedule II because they do consider it to have a medical use as a quote, "topical anesthetic." I mean, come on, man. I mean, you know, if, if...

MARTIN: I didn't know that.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. Most people don't know that. And so, you know, 16 states, as you mentioned, have already decriminalized marijuana for medical use. And, you know, compared to cocaine, I mean most marijuana users, you know, just munch their Cheetos and play "Halo 3" on Xbox 360. You know, I think it is going to be important because Schedule I narcotics under the Controlled Substances Act have a higher likelihood of life sentences for possession and for distribution. So if marijuana has a higher potential for longer sentences than cocaine does, I think that that is a...

MARTIN: Why do civil rights folks care about this?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think that, you know, if you look at trends that we've taken, whether it's death penalty, anything like that, you look at trends that Western nations have taken. A lot of Western European countries have already decriminalized marijuana in many instances. Now we have nearly half of America following that same route. And again, when you are giving a higher penalty to drugs that are less dangerous than cocaine, for example, or heroin or meth, I think that is problematic.

MARTIN: Hmm. Well, we have to leave it there for now. Jimi, I'm afraid to ask what you think, so I'm not going to.



MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book "The Denzel Principle." He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for The Washington Post Writers Group, Latino magazine and PJ Media. He was with us from San Diego. Kevin Blackistone is a sports columnist and professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. He was here with us in Washington, D.C., along with Arsalan Iftikhar, who is a civil rights attorney, founder of themuslimguy.com and author of the new book "Islamic Pacificism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." Thank you all so much.


NAVARRETTE: Thank you.


IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.