I know guys who know Bernie Fine, going back to Brooklyn in the 1960s, and think the world of him. They are shocked and wounded at the allegations, and have trouble reconciling the man they know with the child molester he’s now accused of being.
In other words, they’re not unlike Jim Boeheim, who began the defense of his long-time associate (and, quite transparently, of himself) with a declaration of their friendship, one that has now lasted half a century. The difference is those now-old Brooklyn guys went their separate ways. Boeheim and Fine spent most of their lives together.
And that’s why it’s incumbent on Boeheim to speak — at–length and candidly — about his relationship with Bernie Fine. He doesn’t need to prove himself an infallible judge of character. But he needs to explain what he knew, what he didn’t know, why, why not, and when. He says he’s not Joe Paterno; now that’s his burden to prove.
Actually, the way this story is going, Boeheim could wind up the only man in America who owes JoePa an apology.
Tonight’s Syracuse-Eastern Michigan game at the Carrier Dome will mark Boeheim’s 1,164th game as a head coach, all of them at Syracuse. Hired in 1976, Fine was Boeheim’s top assistant for 1,160 of them. Think about it: 1,160 games translates into how many practices, road trips, recruiting trips, shoot-arounds, banquets, dinners, pregame meals, camps, buses, planes and strategy sessions?
If Jim Boeheim doesn’t know Bernie Fine, who does?
Or, posed another way: what, if anything, didn’t Boeheim want to know?
Seriously, if such a righteous man as Paterno could look the other way, why not Boeheim?
It’s easy for me to ask the question. Just the same, it’s Boeheim’s to answer.
In the days since ESPN broke the story, I am most struck by the coach’s gift for compartmentalization. Between 2002 and 2005, there were three local inquiries — the cops, the district attorney and the university’s — concerning Fine’s allegedly improper relationships with boys. But as to the particulars, Boeheim, a man of enormous influence in upstate New York, managed to remain ignorant of each.
“Just the bare details, not really the in-depth,” he told the network’s college basketball reporter, Andy Katz. “I think that you have to understand as a basketball coach, I don’t get involved in that stuff. That’s not something I should be involved in.”
That stuff? Why not?
I mean, if a guy is sitting directly to my right for 35 years, I’m going to make damn sure I know everything about each of these investigations.
This line Boeheim drew between basketball and real life is not merely artificial, it’s too convenient. Go ahead and bash Paterno. The old man deserves it. The Penn State scandal is a horror, and the story, in large measure, a reaction to Paterno’s sanctimony.
Just the same, ask yourself what, exactly, Boeheim has done to earn the benefit of the doubt?
He doesn’t have Paterno’s credentials as a coach or an educator. Yes, he’s raised money for Coaches for Cancer. But he hasn’t built libraries. He’s not exactly renowned for his players’ graduation rates, either. In fact, the last time he spoke on the matter, Boeheim opposed Education Secretary’s Arne Duncan’s proposal to eliminate teams with less than a 50 percent graduation rate from the NCAA tournament.
“Completely nuts,” said Boeheim.
Compartmentalization? Could be.
Then again, this is the same coach who apparently had no idea that one of his best friends, a car dealer named Bill Rapp, was leaving cash in Christmas cards at players’ lockers.
“I don’t know how I could have done anything differently,” Boeheim once told the Syracuse Post-Standard. “I don’t check their mail.”
Ignorance isn’t always bliss. But for a big-time basketball coach, it usually constitutes plausible deniability. Now there’s a lot of talk about ESPN’s role here. I love beating on ESPN. But not this time. They investigated an accuser’s allegations almost a decade ago. Without corroboration, the story apparently didn’t rise to a satisfactory standard. In the wake of the Penn State scandal, however, the victim’s stepbrother came forward, the police re-opened their investigation and the network dusted off and checked out an old, if incredibly damning, audio tape with Bernie Fine’s wife.
It’s unclear what police knew of the tape.
It’s worth noting that ESPN has an almost $1.9 billion dollar deal with the ACC, the conference Syracuse basketball recently joined. The Big East, to which Syracuse recently belonged, had a symbiotic relationship with ESPN from its inception. To be frank, I would hope the people I work for would report this story under the same conflicted circumstances.
And if the coverage was influenced by Penn State? On balance, is that necessarily terrible?
The world has changed the last month or so. Sexual abuse in sports looks less like periodic if isolated incidents, and more like a systemic problem.
Jim Boeheim has been around long enough to realize that. And one way or another, to deal with it.