On Aug. 16, Yahoo! Sports broke a story that appeared to be the alpha and omega of all college athletic scandals, alleging rampant rule-breaking at the University of Miami.
Less than three horrific months later, that tale of payoffs, prostitutes, strippers, booze and an abortion looks fairly quaint. The allegations at Penn State last week and now, Thursday night, at Syracuse have taken college sports into a new realm of crisis, crossing the Rubicon to a location where the damage may never be undone.
ESPN's report Thursday night that a former ball boy allegedly was sexually abused for years by longtime basketball assistant coach Bernie Fine is the latest explosive headline to rock an enterprise that has been hemorrhaging credibility in recent months. Coming swiftly on the heels of Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky being charged with 40 counts of child sexual abuse, it's hard not to feel like the ground is giving way beneath us.
In reality, sexual abuse of children is more than just a college sports problem. It is a societal problem that has had a very public manifestation in recent days in athletics at all levels. USA Gymnastics on Wednesday banned Hall of Fame coach Don Peters for allegedly abusing female athletes he coached. On Nov. 10, another in a series of lawsuits was filed against USA Swimming for alleged misconduct by coaches involving youth swimmers.
The difference is that people only pay attention to gymnastics and swimming for a couple of weeks every four years. The programs Joe Paterno and Jim Boeheim have built are about as high profile as it gets in college athletics.
But regardless of the level of athletic competition, this much is true: Where influential coaches come into contact with young people, there is the potential for the ultimate abuse of power. In the vast majority of instances that interaction is positive and can help a child develop in healthy ways – but as we have seen very dramatically, not in every instance. Some coaches aren't in it simply to win and help young people grow up.
In both the Fine and Sandusky instances, the accused spent decades as the right-hand man of an iconic coach. Their stature in a college-centric community is elevated beyond normal levels for an assistant coach, which only increases the shock value of the allegations against them.
It's important to note that most of these cases are only allegations at this point – and there is varying depth to those allegations. Whereas the Sandusky case has yielded a 23-page attorney general report and a grand jury indictment of three people, the allegations against Fine – made by former Syracuse ball boy Bobby Davis – have produced no charges yet. The university has placed Fine on leave, but law enforcement agencies have only recently started a Syracuse police investigation, according to ESPN's report.
[Related: Syracuse police begin investigation]
ESPN's story says that Syracuse investigated claims against Fine in 2005 for several months but could not substantiate those claims. Both ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard said they interviewed Davis in 2003 about his claims but could not find anyone to corroborate his allegations against Fine. ESPN says a second man, who was inspired to come forward because of the Sandusky case, recently made claims to the network against Fine.
Davis said he met Fine as a fifth-grader, selling candy bars at Fine's house. He said Fine then made him a ball boy, introduced him to players, got him good seats for games and took him on trips with the team. Eventually, Davis alleged, Fine became sexual with him. Davis alleges that Fine's abuse happened at the Syracuse basketball facility, at the coach's home and on Orange road trips.
While much of the story parallels the allegations against Sandusky – a child wooed with favors and gifts – Davis alleges that Fine's sexual abuse of him continued until he was 27 years old.
I talked to two college basketball coaches Thursday night who know Fine. Both expressed shock and dismay, doubting whether the coach could be capable of such a thing. But after the stunning revelations and allegations that preceded this, nobody can feel certain of anything right now.
The potential positive from the Sandusky allegations is that it might galvanize other alleged child sexual abuse victims to come forward with their stories. The potential negative is that it can also encourage a spike in false accusations.
But as we wait to hear all sides of the Sandusky saga and wait for the police investigation to unfold in Syracuse, this much is certain: College sports can't take too many more hits to its already reeling reputation.
- child sexual abuse