Syracuse, Penn State and the Problem with Sun Kings

Last week, Syracuse University men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim walked onto his home court at the Carrier Dome and received a rousing standing ovation. This wasn’t because he was starting his thirty-fifth season as the team’s head coach, or to commemorate the Hall of Famer’s forty-ninth year in association with the school as student, athlete and coach. It was a community-wide show of support for their embattled leader now facing pressure to resign after his longtime assistant and friend Bernie Fine was accused of being a pedophile.

If that sounds like a horrible echo of the happenings at Penn State University, the similarities don’t end there—and not only because Fine is accused of using his position as coach to find his alleged victims. (Two of his three accusers are former Syracuse ball boys.)

Like the football at Penn State, the basketball program at Syracuse is the cultural, social, and even economic hub of the region. The Syracuse hoops program brings in $19 million in revenue per year, fifth most among basketball programs in the United States and more than storied programs like Kentucky and Indiana.

Like Penn State’s Joe Paterno, Boeheim is more than a coach: he’s an institution. The Syracuse hoops program resembles a kingdom overseen by a benevolent dictator, who, as one source said to me, “tends to see what he wants to see.”

Like Penn State, there is a history of student/athletes having a wide array of misdeeds defended by Boeheim, often in a manner that seems to expect the campus equivalent of diplomatic immunity.

(Unlike Penn State, Jim Boeheim originally, and to his great shame, went after Fine’s accusers calling them “liars”—something for which he has since apologized.)

Like Penn State, allegiance to the program runs deeply in the marrow of the community and well beyond the boundaries of the school. The police chief who heard the original abuse claim against Fine in 2002 is named Dennis DuVal. DuVal played for the Syracuse Orange hoops team from 1972–74, leaving one year before Boeheim took over the top job. DuVal and his underlings kept no written record of the accusations against Fine, telling former ballboy Bobby Davis that “the statute of limitations” had expired, making an investigation impossible. The police department announced this week that they were now changing policy and keeping files of every child abuse accusation going forward.

Like Penn State, Syracuse knew about the allegations for years and conducted their own internal investigation independent of the authorities. In 2005, the school investigated, allegedly—and frankly unbelievably—without telling Boeheim. They buried their findings until turning them over this week.

Like Penn State, there is an incriminating piece of evidence that was entombed for years: at PSU it was graduate assistant Michael McQueary witnessing a shower rape of a 10-year-old; at Syracuse, it was a recorded phone call between Bobby Davis and Bernie Fine’s wife, Laurie, in which Fine’s behavior is acknowledged.

There is one aspect of this scandal that could make it mushroom even beyond Penn State‘s. That’s the role the media played—or didn’t play—when they were given the tape in 2003. They made the decision not investigate or hand it over to the authorities. ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news Vincent Doria defended that decision this week, noting that they had no one to corroborate Davis’s story in 2003. He also said, “It’s not necessarily the journalist’s role to go to the police with potential evidence that at the time we didn’t believe was strong enough to report ourselves.”

ESPN did release the tape this week, after other Fine accusers emerged.

Former ESPN anchorman Dan Patrick and many others have blasted ESPN for not taking the recording to the police, strongly implying that ESPN was more interested in protecting their relationship with Boeheim and the powerful Big East athletic conference. An ESPN employee, requesting anonymity, told me, “Also don’t discount the influence of the ‘Syracuse mafia’—it seems sometimes like every other person at Bristol is a graduate of this place.” (For what it’s worth, I personally agree strongly, no matter the motivation, that it’s not the journalist’s role to turn their stories over to the police or report on stories they cannot corroborate.)

Finally, like Penn State, if it’s found out that Boeheim even had the slightest indication that his friend of four decades acted inappropriately toward children, he’ll be gone, unceremoniously dumped, a victim of his own power and success.

If it’s proven that Boeheim truly knew nothing, many will crow about his vindication. But no one is vindicated when these kinds of charges surface: there are only degrees of suffering and culpability. Bernie Fine maintains his innocence and he will have his day in court. But there is already demonstrable guilt of a different kind: it’s the guilt that hangs on a powerful institution that feared the allegations of child molestation more than they feared the possibility that a child predator could be hurting more kids. It’s the guilt that hangs on a whole community seeing a sports program as “too big to fail” and then warping every pretension of a moral compass to make sure it doesn’t. We saw this at Penn State. We see it at Syracuse. We could see it at more schools in the months to come.

One thing is certain: we need coaches, educators and teachers at our universities. We don’t need benevolent dictators with clipboards. We don’t need collegiate Sun Kings. We don’t need coaches who look across their expansive campuses and say “L’école c’est moi.”

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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