Penn State and Syracuse: Separate Stories

The ongoing revelations from Penn State are awful, and are probably still just the tip of the iceberg.

The accusations that led to Syracuse’s firing of Jim Boeheim’s longtime friend and assistant Bernie Fine are dreadful.

The two cases are inevitably linked in our minds.

The two cases need not be thought of together.

At Penn State, a coaching icon fell because he and the administration above him responded inadequately when informed of sexual abuse of a child in their athletic facilities.

We do not know the full chronology of events at Syracuse.

A grand jury’s detailed findings led to the arrest of Jerry Sandusky, Gary Schultz, and Tim Curley.

No legal action has been taken against Bernie Fine.  At least not yet.

The horrors at Penn State, as reported by that grand jury, involved a witnessed anal rape of an approximately ten-year-old boy.

The accusations at Syracuse come not from an investigating body, but from a 39-year-old man describing abusive acts committed upon him until he put a stop to it in his late twenties.

Joe Paterno, then seventy-two, eased Sandusky into retirement in 1999, telling him that he would not be the next Penn State head coach. The explanation given for Sandusky’s retirement at the end of the football season at age 55 was that he was taking advantage of aspects of the university’s pension plan that were about to change.

Jim Boeheim reacted with strong words defending his assistant coach of 35 years and friend for longer when he was confronted by reporters about the accusations against Fine.  Boeheim lashed out at the accuser, saying he and his stepbrother — who has also claimed to have been abused by Fine – were liars and were only out for money.  Those words were inappropriate, potentially intimidating, and extremely ill-chosen.

Penn State’s administration did not inform the police or child protection agencies about the allegations of a witnessed rape and other potential acts involving the founder of a charity that put him in constant contact with young boys.

Syracuse University officials investigated the allegations when the accuser went to them in 2005; he told them he had informed the police four years earlier.  The university took no action against Fine because it could not corroborate the accuser’s story, despite interviewing four people whose names he had given them.

On learning of the formal charges against his former assistant, Paterno should have immediately offered his resignation – not at the end of the season, but at once.  The ongoing, long-term actions took place on his watch, in his facility.  Whether he knew the full extent of what was happening or others deliberately shielded him from such knowledge, the cover-up that enabled such abuse to continue was done in his program and in his name.  It will be a permanent stain on his place in history that he neither stopped it nor acted appropriately once it was revealed.

We do not know what happened on Jim Boeheim’s watch.  In his feisty, belligerent press conference Tuesday, he made this exact point repeatedly.  Fine’s primary accuser related a long and disturbing history of deeply inappropriate sexual activity, but even when he first brought his charges to the Syracuse Post-Standard in 2002 – the year he taped a phone call with Laurie Fine – they involved a victim who had been a legal adult since 1990.

The Penn State events revealed a profound and deep corruption within the upper ranks of the university.  I am not certain I believe that such corruption is endemic or unique to big-time college football programs – other kinds of corruption in the form of athletic exploitation of the young, yes, but not this.  I suspect the temptation of many kinds of organizations, when confronted with an ugly truth like the charges against Sandusky, is to close ranks and protect the brand.  The reason there is a legal requirement to report any charges of possible abuse is that the normal bureaucratic impulse is not to take such action.  The force of law is intended to remove the element of choice.

There are too many unknowns about the Syracuse ugliness to rush to judgment about Boeheim and the university.   Now that there are three accusers instead of a single uncorroborated one, the police and district attorney’s office are re-engaged, and whatever legal process will result is in its very earliest stages.  There will be plenty of time to act when we know a little more, and are certain we’re burning witches and not random women of Salem.

Distrust and vigilance are proper and inevitable reactions to the horrors exposed in State College.

The Syracuse story is only beginning.  It will surely not be pretty.  Neither is a hair-trigger overreaction.

(published December 1, 2011)




Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)