By Joe Nocera (New York Times)
December 2, 2011
In 1972, Marvin Barnes attacked Larry Ketvirtis with a tire iron. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Barnes, the finest basketball player ever to come out of my hometown, Providence, R.I., was the star center for the Providence College Friars. Ketvirtis was a bench warmer. The Friars had a great team that year — but not without Barnes. Although Barnes was arrested, the judicial machinery in Rhode Island put the case on ice. (Barnes pleaded guilty, and received probation, after he left college.) His coach didn't kick him off the team. The school took no disciplinary action. And when the Friars did, indeed, go on to have a glorious season, we fans reveled in the play of Marvin Barnes, while ignoring what he had done to Larry Ketvirtis.
I'm not immune, in other words, to the seduction of college sports — to the way a good team can bring joy to a downtrodden city, as Providence was then, to the way it can become so surpassingly important that things that should matter more get shoved under the rug. Like a brutal assault on a teammate. Or a sex abuse scandal.
After the news broke that Bernie Fine, the longtime assistant men's basketball coach at Syracuse University, had been accused of sexually abusing a former ball boy named Bobby Davis, I received a number of e-mails from Penn State football fans asking me if I thought Syracuse should suspend its basketball program as I had suggested that Penn State football do.
My first, instinctive answer was no, primarily because the two cases appeared to be so different. The Fine case is much more ambiguous than the situation at Penn State, where, according to a grand jury report, a former Penn State assistant, Jerry Sandusky, was caught allegedly raping a boy in the locker-room shower — and the university appeared to have covered it up.
Davis has been making his accusation about Fine for years, pointing journalists to other alleged victims of Fine, all of whom denied it. (Recently, two other accusers have come forward: Davis's stepbrother, who had previously denied being abused, and a man whose own father says he is lying.) A taped phone call between Davis and Fine's wife, sordid though it is, lacks a smoking gun. There are people around Syracuse basketball who found Fine a little strange, but there are others who saw him as bringing some humanity to the basketball program, run for decades by the curmudgeonly Jim Boeheim.
Yet the closer you look at Syracuse basketball, the more it does, in fact, resemble football at Penn State — or basketball at Providence during the Friars' heyday. For Syracuse, the basketball team is a source of immense pride, the same way Penn State football is in State College, Pa. Many of the most influential citizens have ties to the basketball program. Behavior that would normally merit punishment gets excused — so long as the offender plays for the team.
At Syracuse, for instance, there have been a number of incidents involving basketball players who have allegedly hit or sexually abused women. In a 2007 case highlighted in The Times on Friday, after three players were accused of sexually assaulting a woman, the university sidestepped its normal process and handled the case "informally." Only after a stubborn associate dean, David Potter, insisted that the case be handled through normal channels were the players given "disciplinary probation." Potter left Syracuse soon afterward.
Even in the Bernie Fine matter, one can't help thinking that he got the kid-gloves treatment because of his association with Syracuse basketball. In 2002, The Post-Standard in Syracuse spent six months investigating Davis's allegations. Yet it never even tried to interview Fine. Nor does the paper appear to have directly asked sources if Fine abused Davis. The paper's executive editor, Michael Connor, wrote recently that the paper abandoned it because it didn't have enough proof to publish an article that would inevitably "ruin a person's life." Is that really the same standard it uses when it investigates someone not part of Syracuse basketball?
Two years later, after receiving an anonymous e-mail from Davis, the university conducted its own investigation, bringing in its trusted outside counsel to run it. But it never said a word to the police or the district attorney, and the investigation was closed four months later. In an age when professors lose their jobs for having inappropriate sexual contact with students, it is hard to view this as anything other than a cover-up.
Maybe I am being unreasonable when I suggest that schools that have covered up scandals or looked the other way at wrongdoing should stop playing the sport for a while. Maybe it's just not feasible given the amount of money sloshing around college sports. But there is something really askew here. Something needs to change.
If a university — and its community — can't treat players and coaches the same way everyone else is treated, then what is it really teaching? Surely, the lessons it is imparting are the wrong ones.