Syracuse University head basketball coach Jim Boeheim’s controversial reaction to molestation allegations against his longtime assistant, Bernie Fine, is only the latest in a decades-long pattern of questionable public statements about alleged misconduct by members of his basketball program. During Boeheim’s tenure, Syracuse basketball players have been accused of sexual misconduct, physical violence, burglary, and more -- and Boeheim has repeatedly downplayed allegations and questioned the credibility of people who accuse his players of wrongdoing.
When allegations against Fine became public, Boeheim lashed out at his friend’s accuser:
Asked what Davis’ possible motivation would be to tell his disturbing story at this time, Boeheim hesitated not at all.Boeheim has since apologized, saying "I deeply regret any statements I made that might have […] been insensitive to victims of abuse." CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel isn’t satisfied, and argues that Boeheim should be fired:
“Here's why,” he said. “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.”
[W]hat Boeheim did on Nov. 18 was make it even harder for them to come forward.It should be noted that this is not the first time someone connected to Jim Boeheim’s basketball program has been accused of serious wrongdoing. Nor is it the first time Boeheim has attacked an accuser.
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.
That's what Boeheim was saying on Nov. 18. Whether it was intentional, whether he even knew what he was doing, isn't the point. The point is, that's what he did on Nov. 18. And that's not the kind of mistake that Syracuse University can look back on and say, "Oh well. Nobody's perfect.”
In 2008, Syracuse starting guard Eric Devendorf was suspended after allegedly hitting a female student in the face. Though Devendorf had already been on probation for a previous incident in which he caused physical harm to a student, Boeheim said the suspension was too severe, kept Devendorf in the lineup while he appealed (saying “Based on the information I have, he should be playing basketball right now”) and questioned the credibility of the woman his player allegedly struck. Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis wrote at the time:
Devendorf was already on disciplinary probation at Syracuse for causing physical harm to another student last spring
[…]Note that Boeheim initially said “Eric did not touch anybody,” then acknowledged “Eric pushed her away in the chest area, one time.” That’s a bigger discrepancy than the difference between Devendorf hitting Smith with a “closed fist” or the “heel of his open hand,” the alleged discrepancy Boeheim used to question Smith’s credibility. Note also a panel of their fellow students found that Devendorf’s teammates had given “scripted and biased” testimony on Devendorf’s behalf -- and that Boeheim, rather than being upset at the possibility that his players had conspired to give false testimony, used that testimony to justify his defense of Devendorf.
Devendorf has admitted to getting into a verbal argument with [Kimberly] Smith and pushing her away from him, but he denies hitting her in the face. During the four-hour judicial hearing last Thursday, three of Devendorf's teammates -- Paul Harris, Rick Jackson, Arinze Onuaku and Justin Thomas -- gave testimony supporting his version of events. Nonetheless, the student panel recommended Devendorf be placed on indefinite suspension for at least one academic year, partly because it found the testimony given by Devendorf and his teammates to be "scripted and biased." The board was likely influenced by three text messages sent to Kimberly Smith by Thomas asking her to drop the charges. One invited her to call Boeheim and included the coach's phone number. Another said, "i hope u can find it in ur heart to forgive my teammates thanks."
Boeheim paints a much different picture than the one described by Kimberly Smith. "There are three witnesses who said Eric did not touch anybody, did not hit anybody. The five-person student panel chose not to believe those witnesses. I do," he said. "They all said basically the same thing. The girl got out of the car, then she started yelling at Eric. Eric yelled back, the girl approached Eric, got right up next to him, they were yelling at each other, Eric pushed her away in the chest area, one time, and then walked away. Okay? That's the information I have."
Boeheim would not come right out and say Smith is lying, but he did claim her credibility is in doubt because she has changed her story. For example, the report filed by the Syracuse police department indicated that Devendorf hit her with a "closed fist," but Smith testified to the judicial board that he hit her with the heel of his open hand. Smith's attorney, Richard Kesnig, told me that the term "closed fist" came from the officer, not his client, so her story has stayed consistent. "She never used the words 'closed fist' and she never claimed she was injured," Kesnig said.
I would be less unsettled by Boeheim's position if he indicated he was even the slightest bit conflicted. Instead, he said, "It's not a hard decision. This is one of the easiest decisions I've ever made. I talked to the witnesses and they told me what happened. If I suspend Eric, I would lose the whole team. I can't look them in the eye and say I'm not going to believe you.”
Jim Boeheim could have accepted the judgement of Devendorf’s peers. Or he could have simply said “I believe my players.” Instead, lacking any first-hand knowledge whatsoever, he chose to question the credibility of a woman who said one of his payers struck her in the face, even after a student panel had ruled. What message does that send to others in the Syracuse community who might know of wrongdoing by Boeheim’s players? The same message sent by Boeheim’s forceful insistence that Bernie Fine’s accuser is lying in hopes of scoring a quick payday: Anyone who speaks out against a member of the Syracuse basketball program better be prepared for attacks from the school’s most famous figure.
In 1993, six Syracuse basketball players were involved in a late-night confrontation at a Syracuse bar. Bouncers at the bar said players Michael Edwards and Anthony Harris refused to leave for 30 minutes as bar employees were trying to close up at 1 am. According to the bouncers, Edwards challenged them to a fight, at which point, they tried to push the players out the door and Harris fell down some steps and broke his teeth. The players say the bouncers assaulted them. After the scuffle, Harris and Edwards went to the apartment of teammate Conrad McRae, got a hammer, and picked up three teammates at another club, at which point the six players -- with the hammer -- went back to the bar to confront the bouncers. The Syracuse Post-Standard reported on January 9, 1993:
About 2:40 a.m., Edwards pounded on the bar's Plexiglas windows with the hammer, demanding that the bouncers come outside and fight, bar manager Frank Rinaldo told police. Rinaldo said he called for police. He heard glass breaking and saw Edwards smashing his Jeep's windows, Rinaldo told police. Edwards' hands were bleeding, police said. Windows were also smashed on cars owned by people who had nothing to do with the bar, police said.Edwards was suspended for the incident, though the other players were not punished. And, incredibly, Jim Boeheim publicly defended the players:
Boeheim said the players went back to the bar because they were concerned with Harris' welfare.
"They didn't go to fight. They went because they were concerned about him (Harris)," he said.
Witnesses told police the SU players, including Harris, went back and challenged the bouncers to come out and fight.That’s absolute nonsense. The players, including Harris, had left the bar. They went to a teammate’s apartment. If they were “concerned about” Harris, they’d have taken him to the hospital. Instead, they picked up a weapon and three teammates and went back to the bar, where they allegedly challenged bar employees to a fight and smashed the windows of at least one vehicle. And Jim Boeheim said those were the understandable, if not acceptable, actions of people concerned about their teammate’s welfare. They didn’t go to fight, according to Boeheim. So why did they take the hammer?
"He (Edwards) was one of the players who came back and I believe acted in emotion - an extremely emotional state - and did something he shouldn't have done, for which he's being suspended from the basketball team. I don't condone it, but I understand it," Boeheim said.
In reporting the incident, the Post Standard recounted several previous incidents involving Syracuse basketball players:
Other Syracuse University basketball players who have been investigated by police or charged with a crime include:Boeheim had an excuse for Coleman’s behavior, reported the Toledo Blade on December 16, 1990:
SU player Conrad McRae was charged by police in April 1992 with obstructing governmental administration, resisting arrest and criminal mischief, all misdemeanors, after he was accused of bear-hugging a police officer who was trying to arrest a friend of McRae's outside a Crouse Avenue tavern. A judge dismissed the charge, but ordered McRae to perform 40 hours of community service and pay $50 restitution to an SU student whose car was damaged in the fracas.
City police asked a judge to issue a criminal summons in 1991 charging Adrian Autry with harassment for allegedly punching an ex-girlfriend. No charges were filed. The woman withdrew her complaint against Autry.
In February 1990, a 19-year-old Syracuse man told police he was pummeled by player Billy Owens and three other men for throwing a snowball at a car Owens was driving. Owens was not arrested. The man declined to press charges.
Player Dave Johnson was the focus of an investigation by Syracuse police into possible sexual misconduct involving a 14-year-old girl. No charges were filed against him. SU put Johnson on probation for a year because of the relationship.
Player Derrick Coleman was charged with a misdemeanor count of criminal mischief and harassment, a violation, in 1988 following a fight and break-ins at two students' apartments. Coleman later pleaded to charges of harassment and disorderly conduct, and was sentenced to 50 hours of community service.
Coleman received national publicity after being reprimanded by the university for participating in a campus burglary and a fight. The athlete also was involved in two other bar fights while at Syracuse. Coleman maintains the correct version of each incident was never told, although he refused to talk with reporters after each episode.Yeah, small towns really do tend to blow three fights and a burglary out of proportion, don’t they?
“Unfortunately, that’s the problem in a small town. The focus is on us all the time and things tend to get blown out of proportion,” Boeheim said.
Among current Syracuse basketball players, Fab Melo faces a criminal mischief charge after allegedly breaking the turn signal off his girlfriend’s car during an argument; Melo has been ordered by a court not to have any further contact with the woman, who has told police Melo was violent several other times. And Scoop Jardine was placed on probation and ordered to participate in a domestic violence education program after being cleared of sexual assault allegations.
Boeheim isn’t responsible for everything his players and coaches do on their own time, but he is responsible for the message he sends them, and the broader community, through his public statements. And, too often, he has made excuses for serious misconduct and attacked the credibility of people who dare level allegations against members of his program. It isn’t hard to conclude that those statements contribute to an unhealthy atmosphere around the Syracuse basketball program.