Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Jim Boeheim needs to choose his words more carefully
The instant the words left his mouth, I cringed. I knew Jim Boeheim would rue the day he made those asinine comments.
The Syracuse University basketball coach’s decision to lash out at the men who accused his long-time friend and assistant of sexual molestation is consistent with whom Boeheim is and has always been – a fiercely loyal, competitive, thin-skinned man ruled by emotion who occasionally speaks before he thinks.
As a reporter who’s covered him for 36 years and recently published an unauthorized biography about him, I’ve experienced his kindness and his wrath.
Sometimes, his genuine, unvarnished, shoot-from-the-lip comments have been refreshing and made for great copy and sound bites in an era of phony, sanitized coach-speak.
This was not one of those times.
And now the competitive fire that helped Boeheim become a Hall-of-Fame coach and build Syracuse University into a national college basketball power may ultimately lead to his crash-and-burn.
I understood his initial reaction to a point. He was angry that Bernie Fine, the trusted friend who had been at his side for nearly four decades, was under attack. He wanted to come strongly to his defense. But by labeling Fine’s accusers “liars” and opportunists, he went way too far. His bully behavior embarrassed himself and our alma mater, and, more importantly, showed a total lack of sensitivity to anyone who has been victimized by a pedophile. These types of forceful, public pronouncements inhibit victims from coming forward. They make a horrible problem even worse.
Boeheim’s statement of apology and total acceptance of Fine’s firing by the university Sunday night was a step in the right direction. But with some national columnists and victims’ rights groups calling for his firing, I’m wondering if his act of contrition was a case of too little, too late.
Interestingly, during his initial verbal barrage, Boeheim showed an additional lack of class by telling people he was not Joe Paterno. The reference, of course, was to the deposed Penn State football coach, whose failure to do the right thing in the sexual molestation scandal involving his friend and long-time assistant Jerry Sandusky ultimately led to more boys being victimized. Again, I know what Boeheim was saying. He was attempting to make a point that, unlike Paterno, he had no prior knowledge of Fine’s alleged acts of sexual abuse against former SU ballboys.
But, by attempting to distance himself from Paterno, Boeheim ironically wound up making the connection between the two closer. And, in a cruel twist, he could wind up meeting the same fate as Paterno by having his legacy tarnished by a child abuse scandal brought on by a long-time friend whom he didn’t really know.
While I’m not ready to call for Boeheim’s firing, I do think a suspension might be in order. And, in an effort to show that he truly is sorry for his remarks, I would like to see his charitable foundation throw further support to organizations that deal with the horrors of pedophilia. Shed a light on a problem that for too long has been hidden in the dark. Use lessons learned from a tragedy to avoid future tragedies.
Sadly, we live in an instant information age in which the tendency to rush to judgment has never been greater. There are way too many questions still to be answered in this bizarre scandal. Hard as it may be for some who want instant justice, we should allow this investigation to run its course. We must avoid engaging in witch hunts.
Again, unlike the Penn State case, no one has made any statements or provided evidence that Boeheim had prior knowledge of Fine’s alleged improprieties. If the investigation determines otherwise, then, yes, fire Boeheim immediately and punish him to the full extent of the law.
As I try to sort through this mess, I think about the biography I just wrote about Boeheim. (Yeah, I know. Great timing, huh?) In my attempt to find out what made him tick and how he made this incredible journey from little, Lyons, N.Y. to the upper echelon of college basketball, I discovered a very complex man, who, in many respects, is like his domineering father. Theirs was a complicated relationship – at times more a competition than a relationship, really.
But beneath the harsh veneer I also found a caring man, whose charitable acts – both publically and behind the scenes – have been extraordinary. And there is something admirable about the loyalty Boeheim has shown his players, his school, his community and his friends – though, at times, he has been guilty of being loyal to a fault.
This is not, by any means, to excuse Boeheim’s stupid and insensitive comments. But merely to point out that there are many layers to the man – some good, some bad.
As I watch this tragic tale unfold at a place where I received a world-class education and grew immensely as a person, I realize another chapter of the Jim Boeheim story remains to be written.