A fixture on Syracuse’s bench for 36 years, Bernie Fine will be absent again Wednesday night when the men’s basketball team plays its second game since he was placed on administrative leave for sexual abuse allegations.
Following so quickly on the heels of Penn State’s scandal, the Syracuse case has upped the levels of indignation everywhere.
Penn State fans are resentful because Syracuse escaped the broad-brush tarnish that’s been applied to their school. Syracuse fans are angry that the two schools have been lumped together at all on such a despicable topic.
Child advocates are furious with Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim for declaring that Fine’s accusers are lying and merely looking for a financial reward. Journalists are upset with ESPN for airing such a damaging story without more corroborating evidence.
And, I suppose, Jerry Sandusky has supporters who are mad that he’s already been convicted in the court of public opinion, while commentators are warning against a rush to judgment on Fine.
The two cases don’t demand identical treatment because the circumstances are totally different, namely the 23-page indictment and criminal charges against Sandusky and two former Penn State officials. The grand jury heard from witnesses and victims who described Sandusky’s alleged offenses and multiple accusers have come forward in the aftermath.
Conversely, Bobby Davis had been Fine’s lone accuser in allegations that date to 2002 — charges that were investigated at various points by the police, the Post-Standard newspaper, ESPN and the university itself. None of the sources Davis said would back him up did so, and nothing ever came of his assertions … until his stepbrother, Michael Lang, claimed last week that Fine abused him, too.
Despite the stark differences between the stories, there are disturbing similarities as well.
One is Boeheim’s swift and unequivocal defense of Fine, reminiscent of now-former Penn State president Graham Spanier’s “unconditional support” of two officials who apparently oversaw a cover-up. Another is the incredible, powerful sway that football and basketball have over Penn State and Syracuse, respectively. And a third is the peculiar affinity that Sandusky and Fine have for fatherless, adolescent boys.
I’m the first to admit that the absence of strong, male role models is problematic for children who live under rough socioeconomic conditions. Thank goodness for organizations such as Big Brothers, fraternities and church groups (I’ve worked through all) that try to fill the void with mentoring programs.
There’s no doubt that thousands of children have benefited from committed volunteers expending time, energy and effort for a worthy cause.
There’s also no doubt that some adults with an outsized interest in children not their own have nefarious intentions.
Lavishing youngsters with gifts and trips and insider access to big-time athletic events could be perfectly innocent. But adults who do that shouldn’t be offended when they come under scrutiny; they should insist on close inspection to help root out evildoers.
We can’t determine who they are by looking at them. And no matter how well you (think you) know someone, there’s no telling what goes on behind closed doors.
If Boeheim has falsely accused Davis and Lang of lying, he has victimized them a second time and given pause to possible victims who are reluctant to come forward.
The takeaway for Penn State and Syracuse is that might doesn’t make right. Their legendary sports programs and mythical coaches are imposing to individuals who might bear bad news. It’s distressing that accusations alone cause irreparable damage to the accused’s reputation, but institutions and their leaders must take them seriously — which Boeheim failed to do.
Of course he’d be shocked if Fine is guilty. Perpetrators tend to keep their sexual abuse hidden from friends and loved ones.
But as much as you feel for Fine if he’s innocent, there’s an equal amount of empathy for Davis and Lang if they’re telling the truth. Research shows that victims often remain quiet because they fear they won’t be believed, and these guys have plenty of skeptics.
The charges could be “patently false” as Fine contends. They could be the absolute truth, so help them God. Or they could be somewhere in between.
I don’t blame advocacy groups that jump in and take a side such as the New York Coalition to Protect Children. Members addressed the media Monday and called for Boeheim to apologize for calling the accusers liars and intimidating other possible victims.
“So we want the intimidation to stop, we want the tone to stop, and we want the university community to rally around these two men who have courageously stepped forward and risked a lot in their lives to make this issue known,” Rev. Robert Joatson told reporters.
Those who can’t bring themselves to rally around Davis and Lang needn’t be indignant toward those who do.
Unlike the Penn State case, we can reserve judgment here. Even if we’re leaning the other way.
• Deron Snyder can be reached at email@example.com.
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