Syracuse Coach’s Boneheaded Defense of Assistant Accused of Sexual Abuse
Jim Boeheim rushed to back his assistant Bernie Fine against allegations of sexual abuse. The basketball coach clearly learned nothing from Penn State, says Buzz Bissinger. Plus, Allen Barra asks if ESPN dropped the ball by not reporting on the case.
So much for lessons learned no matter how elemental. So much for making the slightest attempt to break the code of omertà that is the blood oath of every major college coach in this country. So much for having at the very least the common sense to keep your mouth shut until you actually have some idea of where the investigation leads.
At least nothing until Sunday night, when he tried to save himself from the noose he had placed around his neck with his initial outrageous and ignorant defense of assistant coach Bernie Fine, fired by the university Sunday night after an internal investigation. Even then, Boeheim’s statement an hour after the firing reeked of contrivance and insincerity: a too-little-too-late apology to victims of child abuse. An expression of shock, shocking unto itself given his speed-of-light reaction to the initial charges against Bernie Fine made earlier this month by two alleged victims who spoke with ESPN. Money grubbers smelling fat civil-suit paydays—that’s the way Boeheim basically described them. Liars. Opportunists. Vermin challenging Fine’s career with Syracuse and the great reputation of the Syracuse basketball program itself (let’s ignore the early 1990s when the NCAA placed the team on two years’ probation for a series of recruiting violations in which Boeheim was criticized for not exerting better control of his program).
The allegations against Fine, when first reported by ESPN on Nov. 17, were admittedly muddled. It was clear that more investigation was needed. One of the alleged victims, 39-year-old Bobby Davis, told ESPN that Fine had first started molesting him in 1984 when he was in seventh grade and continued for years. But the lapse of time between the initial alleged contact and the present could not be ignored. It was also true that both ESPN and the Post-Standard newspaper of Syracuse had investigated Davis’s allegations in 2003 and had declined to report anything because of a lack of corroboration. But Davis, when interviewed on camera by ESPN, appeared honest and convincing. The sex-abuse allegations against Fine were further corroborated on camera to ESPN by a second victim, Mike Lang, who is Davis’s stepbrother.
Any idiot, particularly in the wake of the Penn State scandal and 40 counts of serial sex abuse of minors filed by the Pennsylvania attorney general against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, would have reacted to the allegations against Fine by offering no comment at all. Any idiot would have realized that nothing is beyond the pale in college sports today, including coaches preying on innocent minors.
But Boeheim reacted with his instantaneous defense of his assistant that was vicious, wrong-headed, ill-advised, offensive, and embarrassing to the university that he supposedly represents. It also showed that in the unparallel universe of college sports, entitled and arrogant and dangerous in what it hides and beholden to no one, the horror of Penn State didn’t even merit a cause for pause by Boeheim. Instead it was business as usual. My team. My players. My coaches. My rules. My realm. And any outsider who challenges that realm can go f--k himself.
“It is a bunch of a thousand lies that [Davis] has told,” Boeheim said to ESPN when the story broke. “He supplied four names to the university that would corroborate his story. None of them did … there is only one side to this story. He is lying. What are people looking for here? I believe they are looking for money. I believe they saw what happened at Penn State and they are using ESPN to get money. That is what I believe.”
It was abundantly clear that Boeheim—who started coaching Syracuse along with Fine as his assistant in 1976—instead of being concerned by the allegations, actually was offended by them.
His statements were pitiful, yet another major college coach invoking omertà and the ironclad rule that you never turn on your own. Until you are backed into a corner because of your reflexive protectionism and can no longer deny what seems all too plausible.
Over the weekend, a third man, 23-year-old Zach Tomaselli, stepped forward and told the Post-Standard that he too had been molested by Fine. ESPN’s Outside the Lines also aired a tape of a conversation Davis had with Fine’s wife in which she said, “I know everything that went on with him … Bernie has issues, maybe that he’s not aware of, but he has issues … And you trusted somebody you shouldn’t have trusted.”
The twin punch of the new revelations, along with a search of Fine’s house by police, resulted in his firing. An hour later Boeheim issued his statement, calling the latest allegations “disturbing and deeply troubling.” He said he agreed with the university’s firing of Fine. He said that the case needed to be fully investigated and that anyone with information come forward, just as he also acknowledged that his previous shark attack “might have inhibited that from occurring or been insensitive to victims of abuse.”
It was a beautiful statement. It expressed the essential requisites of remorse and regret. It was also full of s--t, a coach scrambling like a cockroach.
Should Boeheim be suspended for the rest of the season for what he originally said? Yes. Should he be suspended without pay? Yes, because his salary (a base of over a million) like the salaries of all major college coaches in basketball and football, cannot be justified under any rational academic setting. Let him rejuvenate Occupy Wall Street.
Should he be fired?
At least not yet. There is still much to sort out. In the tape recording of the conversation between Fine’s wife and Davis, it was revealed that they had a sexual relationship. As for the third victim, he himself is facing charges of sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy, which inevitably raises questions about his credibility.
But if Fine did engage in acts of predatory sex on minors, it seems impossible that Boeheim would not have had some awareness of them. Coaches in basketball and football love to gossip. They soak up every rumor. A head coach knows what is being said about every member of his staff. He becomes aware of disturbing behavior. It is one of the prerequisites of his job.
Boeheim has acknowledged that he did know who Davis was, perhaps because he was a ball boy for the Syracuse team at one point, but also perhaps because of Davis’s assertion that he went on road trips with Fine and was once inside his hotel room when Boeheim entered. Boeheim said he has no recollection of ever entering Fine’s hotel room on the road in the 35 years they coached together. That sounds as credible to me as the deep regret he expressed Sunday night after initially describing Davis and his stepbrother as liars looking to make some bucks.
There are still facts to come out, and with the university, the Syracuse police, the U.S. attorney, and the media now investigating, more will come out. But Jim Boeheim should have a suitcase ready.
Given his résumé, which includes a national championship and 24 NCAA tournament appearances, I doubt he will have much problem finding another job if he does get axed. In the world of major college sports, a track record of winning eventually trumps a track record of lying. Somebody somewhere will want him.
Who knows, maybe there’s an opening at Penn State.