With Syracuse taking the step to formally terminate Bernie Fine on Sunday, after having previously placed him on administrative leave when the allegations first broke ten days earlier, the heat has now shifted to Jim Boeheim. In the hours immediately after the allegations went public, Jim Boeheim came out with some very pointed comments. Then he kept talking. He basically accused the accusers of going for a cash grab. He called them liars. He questioned why it took so long, and why a prior investigation found nothing.
Gregg Doyel thinks that Jim Boeheim should be fired because of his comments. Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated thinks that the Bernie Fine firing was appropriate, but does not think anything is merited at this point in regard to Boeheim, pending further information.
I actually agree with many of Doyel’s points, though I do not ultimately side with the position that firing must occur. I think there are other points of punishment, such as public censure and suspension, that are merited here. This is not Penn State at this point. There is no evidence Boeheim knew or reasonably should have known. To date, we don’t have evidence of a program run amok with individuals failing to stop a molester that they had information that would lead a reasonable person considerable pause.
First, on Davis’ points, he justifies, or at least forgives the point that Boeheim came out so strongly and has since backtracked based on the new information, as it was what many would do, and it was typical to be so deceived.
But we need to keep in mind that one of the great tragedies of child molestation is the fact that these predators are so often able to fool those who are closest to them, most notably the victims and their families. Your typical child predator is not some stranger in a trench coat who hangs around the playground. He’s someone you know and trust and admire.
All true. And herein is the problem. It was a perfectly human response. Hours before this scandal broke, I wrote about sexual abuse in regard to Penn State. I talked about my own experiences, and how, almost universally, when someone is confronted with knowing the victim and accused, they side with the accused. I said:
That response, that dreadful response and fear of reprisal from others for hurting someone who actually isn’t the true victim, needs to end. It’s too typical, though. I have no doubt that there are victims out there from long ago, afraid to come forward. Part embarrassment, part fear of the response that people have to protect the things they love, no matter how misguided.
It was gripping to me to see Boeheim, a man so successful, so powerful, succumb to the same instincts as people in far less prominent positions in similar situations. Most child abuse situations are not like Penn State–there is not an eyewitness to the crime other than the victim. Most are more like here, an accuser, often not right away, says something.
While Boeheim’s response may have been more typical than we like to think, his station is not. Which is where I agree with what Doyel says here:
. . . Boeheim is the most powerful, most popular man in Syracuse. And for that guy, in that town, to ridicule Fine’s accusers as liars and opportunists — as deceitful frauds looking to make a quick buck — Boeheim laid down a very public gauntlet to anyone else who might have been interested in telling the police they were molested by Fine:
Come after Fine, and you’re crossing me.
Boeheim sure may not have intended that, but that is absolutely the effect. It has a chilling effect. It affirms the worst fears of those who struggle to come forward, worried that it was something about them, or that they will be attacked, and no one will believe. His response was perfectly human. As a friend of Bernie Fine, it was to be expected.
He’s not just a friend, though. He also represents an institution. He’s free to say those things. As a leader with responsibility as more than of friend of Bernie Fine, though, he should not.
That said, I think a suspension is appropriate here, not a firing. I know the investigation is ongoing. I think it’s appropriate precisely because Syracuse determined they had seen enough to fire Bernie Fine. If they have seen enough to do that, then they have seen enough to publicly censure and suspend Boeheim, as a representative of the University, for his comments that impacted the investigation.
This is not Penn State. At this point, at least, it is not Penn State. There needs to be some gradation to punishment. Coming out in the heat of the moment in over the top support of a person you trust is not the same as turning a willful blind eye.
As a practical matter, also, a suspension may ultimately save Boeheim from a worse fate. The calls will get louder. If Boeheim is suspended now, and the investigation runs its course, it is more palatable to reinstate him later if nothing further (as it relates to Boeheim’s role) comes out. Then, he will have been suspended for his comments as a public figure with a leadership role, and, I sincerely hope, exonerated from any other issues.
I also think this. Most people are good and decent people. We are not all educated in the intracacies of every subject, even if we are generally well educated. Just because Boeheim is a great basketball coach doesn’t mean he has ever had to truly ponder child abuse and its various layers, before it smacked him in the face two weeks ago. The most powerful advocates can often be those who most ardently criticized, then saw the error of their ways. Paul had his road to Damascus. I think Boeheim, with a non-trivial suspension for the effect of his ill-conceived words, can have his. Victims don’t come forward because of fear, these things don’t get reported in consistent patterns and immediately. What he did can have an effect.
And he can speak new words that empower victims. Those can be more powerful and helpful to addressing the problem of sexual abuse, fear, and taboo, then just getting our next pound of flesh and pretending this is a Penn State problem, or in this case, a Boeheim problem.
[photo via Getty]
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