The network in 2003 investigated a former Syracuse ball boy's claims against Fine. Like the Syracuse Post Standard, which was looking into the same charges, the story wasn't reported at the time because no one backed up the charges. Both organizations went public in 2011 when a second person told his own story of alleged abuse. It also came to light that ESPN had for years a tape of Fine's wife discussing the alleged abuse with the first accuser, although with a lack of specificity.
Critics, including the ombudsmen, suggested ESPN gave up pursuing the initial story too quickly — a decision that could have serious implications if alleged abuse continued in the intervening years.
"We do not believe that ESPN acted with gross negligence," Fry and McBride wrote, "but rather a lack of persistence."
Doria concedes ESPN acted cautiously following the Fine story, primarily because of the seriousness of the allegations and the damage that could be done if the ball boy's story proved to be untrue. Whether more could have been done with the audio recording is a fair discussion to have, he said.
"We get a lot of scrutiny," he said. "Some of it is fair scrutiny, thoughtful scrutiny, well-intentioned scrutiny. Some of it, not so much. I would ask them to look at our record."
Tom Scocca, managing editor of the sports website Deadspin, was sharply critical of ESPN's coverage in these cases. He also questions the extent to which ESPN can cover issues where it has a clear financial interest, such as the ongoing realignment in college sports conferences, driven primarily by television money.
ESPN can do a good job looking into NCAA violations at specific sports programs, but Scocca wondered if the network would it want to take a comprehensive look at whether major college sports are corrupt when the company's money is helping to feed it. Similarly, was there much incentive to pursue a messy, not clear-cut story about potential child abuse at a college basketball program fresh off an NCAA championship?
To a certain extent, though, fending off such criticism is like proving a negative.
"To maintain our credibility as journalists, which is an important thing, we need to do this reporting regardless of the business relationships," Doria said.
As the "big dog" in sports media, ESPN expects to get a lot of attention over how it handles stories, Doria said. The network hasn't hidden from openly discussing its role in the stories, which amid criticism of its actions earned the network some praise from media blogger Erik Wemple of The Washington Post.
The Dodd story also indicates ESPN may have more opportunities to test itself on these types of issues. The Sandusky case has triggered a lot more story tips.
"Some of them look like they're valid and worth following up on," Doria said. "Some of them are people calling because it looks like something to do."
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