|In this Monday, Nov. 14, 2011, photo, Syracuse basketball assistant coach Bernie Fine watches a college basketball game against Manhattan in the NIT Season Tip-Off in Syracuse, N.Y. ESPN reported Thursday, Nov. 17, that police were investigating Fine on allegations of child molestation. Shortly afterward, Syracuse placed Fine on administrative leave "in light of the new allegations and the Syracuse City Police investigation," the school said. (AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli, File)|
Column: Shocking charges, and a rush to judgment
Jerry Sandusky's protestations of innocence in the Penn State scandal came in a television interview that no first-year law student would ever allow a client to give.
The one issued by Bernie Fine at Syracuse University came in a prepared statement that should give us all some pause.
"There should never be a rush to judgment," Fine said, "when someone's personal integrity and career are on the line."
Words to remember in today's world of instant communication, where verdicts can come quickly in the court of public opinion. One day we don't know who Bernie Fine is, the next we're searching for his picture among the FBI's most wanted at the local post office.
Whether the longtime assistant to Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim is guilty of anything, I don't know. Syracuse City Police are looking into child molestation allegations made by two former ball boys about him, and he was placed on administrative leave by the school.
It's different with Sandusky. There are grand jury charges, a report that will make your stomach curl and at least eight alleged victims.
The rush to judgment, though, can work both ways. Loyalty and friendship come into play, and the instinct is to circle the wagons and defend at all costs.
That's what happened at Penn State, where university president Graham Spanier's first reaction to charges against two of his underlings in the Sandusky case was to declare his full confidence in them. They were gone the next day, and a few days later Spanier joined them in the unemployment line.
I'm not suggesting Boeheim is going anywhere, though Joe Paterno was ousted with such speed that anything is possible. But within hours of the allegations being made public, Boeheim had chosen his side by declaring that he's never seen or suspected anything suspicious about a coach he has known for more than 40 years.
"I'm not Joe Paterno. Somebody didn't come and tell me Bernie Fine did something and I'm hiding it. I know nothing," Boeheim told The Post-Standard in Syracuse. "If I saw some reason not to support Bernie, I would not support him. If somebody showed me a reason, proved that reason, I would not support him. But until then, I'll support him until the day I die."
With that, the lines are drawn. You're for him or against him; yet police have barely started looking into the allegations.
The problem is the person you think you know so well might not be that person at all.
As Boeheim insists he's no Paterno, there's a long way to go in the legal process before anyone can say Fine is a Sandusky.
What child abuse experts will tell you, though, is that predators are often authority figures who work in a position of trust with children. That certainly includes coaches at all levels, from your neighbor coaching a soccer team to world-class coaches in any sport.
Whoever it is, they leave a trail of ruined childhoods and difficult lives. And there seems to be no shortage of them out there.
Former boxer Sugar Ray Leonard struggled for four decades with the memory of an advance made by one of his coaches, drinking heavily and using cocaine for years to mask the pain. He finally unburdened himself in a book, though he still grew emotional when I talked to him about it earlier this year.
Earlier this week, the man who coached the 1984 U.S. women's Olympic team was banned for life by USA Gymnastics and had his place in the federation's Hall of Fame revoked after two former gymnasts said he sexually abused them when they were teenagers in the 1980s.
And in July, USA Swimming acknowledged it already had banned 46 officials and coaches for life, mostly for sexual misconduct, and had a second list of people who are under suspicion.
It's a dirty, dark secret in sports, and it's been going on for a long time in a lot of different places. The charges levied in Happy Valley were both shocking and disgusting, but, other than their high profile, weren't a lot different than charges filed in courts every week somewhere around the country.
That doesn't mean we should automatically assume guilt every time someone levels an accusation.
But we do all need to be more vigilant to try and keep it from happening again.