Sunday, November 20, 2011

Believing in Bernie Fine

I was never good enough to make the high school, college or university basketball teams, no where near good enough actually. Realizing I was never meant to play competitively at Montréal’s Wagar High School, Montreal’s Dawson College or Carleton University in Ottawa, I served as the team manager.

Team managers fill an important role on a basketball team, often a key connection between the coaching staff and the players. Through my years as a student manager I stood from afar and imagined what it would be like to be Bernie Fine.

In the early 1960’s Bernie Fine had been the student manager on the Syracuse University basketball team, a team that included Hall of Famers Jim Boehim and David Bing. Boeheim is the current coach of the Orange and Bing the mayor of Detroit.

Fine had first been a high school coach and then Boehim’s assistant at Syracuse. If Bernie could do it, could I do it? Could I make the leap from student manager to coach?

Four years working at Basketball Canada and many years coaching, basketball has and will always be a large part of my day-to-day life, and that is at least in part due to Bernie Fine.

The Penn State “alleged” child sex abuse scandal is rearing its ugly head once again. This time allegations being linked to another major college athletic program nowhere near Happy Valley.

Instead, Central New York and the Syracuse University basketball program are under the microscope. And Bernie Fine – is at the center of a firestorm

The allegations, first reported by ESPN, have raised many questions and offered few, if any, answers. Jerry Sandusky has been indicted by a Grand Jury on 40 different charges involving multiple young boys. The charges have resulted in the firing of Penn State’s head football coach Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier who served as Penn State’s President for 16 years.

The story is very different at Syracuse. Bobby Davis, a former Syracuse team ball boy, reported his claims to the media, Syracuse University and the Syracuse Police Department in 2002. Davis provided the authorities with four people who would corroborate his allegations.

When the multiple investigations were completed and no one backed up what Davis’s claims, the case was closed.

“All of those identified by him denied any knowledge of wrongful conduct by the associate coach,” Nancy Cantor said in a Syracuse Post Standard report. “At the end of the investigation, as we were unable to find any corroboration of the allegations, the case was closed. Had any evidence or corroboration of earlier allegations surfaced — even if the police had declined to pursue the matter — we would have acted.”

The second alleged victim, Mike Lang, now 45, is Davis' stepbrother and was a ball boy at Syracuse for several years. He also has told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" that Fine molested him, starting when Lang was in fifth or sixth grade. When the story broke late Thursday the media did their best to not compare the story to Penn State.

Jim Boeheim, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and Fine’s teammate since 1962, has been very vocal in his support.

“The Post-Standard and the university talked to those other kids (in 2003). None of them corroborated the story, at all. I know some of those kids. They’ve told me, ‘Hey, Coach. Bernie helped me. He cared about me. He knew I needed help and he helped me.
“You need to go to your people down there at the paper. They investigated this for four months. Do they remember that? And they found … what? They investigated this and found nothing. They talked to Bernie’s neighbors and friends … everybody. They found nothing. Your paper would whitewash nothing. Don’t you agree? They had nothing. They could not write a story. They found zero.

“The Penn State thing came out and the kid behind this is trying to get money. He’s tried before. And now he’s trying again. If he gets this, he’s going to sue the university and Bernie. What do you think is going to happen at Penn State? You know how much money is going to be involved in civil suits? I’d say about $50 million. That’s what this is about. Money.”

Was it right for Jim Boeheim to stand by Bernie Fine? Depends who you ask.

"He took a big risk in automatically defending his assistant," New York-based crisis consultant Mike Paul said. "He certainly didn't think about this from the university's standpoint or out of respect for the law and potential liability for the university and him."

Paul may be right, but so is Boeheim in why he’s standing so firmly beside Fine. Boeheim points out he and Fine have been friends for 50 years and he’ll stand up for his lifelong friend.

The statute of limitations against Fine has long expired – legally the case has little if any merit.

"The case is likely to face difficulty whether a civil lawsuit or criminal charges are brought because the time for filing a lawsuit or prosecuting a crime appears to have passed," said Suzanne Goldberg, a Columbia University law professor and director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.

"There's no case here," said New York University law professor Martin Guggenheim in a USA Today report.

At the same time it’s impossible to dismiss the allegations against Fine. College sports has changed forever in the aftermath of the Penn State scandal.

That said it’s important to note a Grand Jury conducted a three year investigation of Jerry Sandusky. Bernie Fine has been investigated by the Syracuse Police, Syracuse University, ESPN and The Syracuse Post Standard in 2002 and 2003.

Was ESPN right to report the story in 2011 when they didn’t believe there was a story in 2002 and 2003?

If Fine is exonerated ESPN could face a great deal of criticism.

"Now what's happening is the ripple effect," Paul Mones, a sexual abuse attorney and children's rights advocate in Portland, Ore told ESPN. “Victims around the country are having what is called an anniversary reaction. Victims are feeling more agitated."

What made Lang come forward in 2011 when he was nowhere to be found in 2002 and 2003? Davis says it was “after seeing news coverage of the Sandusky case.”

Support for Bernie Fine and the tough stance Jim Boeheim is taking in his support of Fine is resonating with the Syracuse community.

"From the people I've talked to around here, there is a real sense of being disturbed about this story and also a kind of defensiveness which I think we saw at Penn State as well," Thompson said. "The idea that this surely couldn't be true and all of that kind of thing, especially given what Boeheim has said.

"It certainly sounds sincere," Robert Thompson founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University said when asked about Boeheim's strong denial of the accusations against Fine according to the USA Today. "However this goes, this is a bad story. If it all turns out to be untrue, then a bunch of untrue accusations is a really bad story. If it turns out to have truth to it, that's an even worse story."

There are two ways this story can go. It will be a repeat of the ultimately false rape accusations made against the nationally ranked Duke University lacrosse team in 2006.

Those accused were tried and convicted of a fabricated event. The young men linked to lies had their lives changed forever – and they did nothing wrong. If Bernie Fine is proven to be innocent will he be able to recover his reputation – will his life ever be the same?

If the story is true it will mark a sad end to the life and times of Bernie Fine and will impact the legacy Jim Boeheim has built in his 36 years at Syracuse.

This is a story with no happy endings.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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