Commentary

Is this another campus wake-up call?

Originally Published: November 17, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

This is the month that should shake college athletics to its core.

Forget point-shaving and the paying of quarterbacks.

Forget tattoo-parlor backroom dealings, phone call excesses and purported agent runners.

[+] EnlargeBernie Fine
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesSyracuse assistant Bernie Fine is accused by two former ball boys of sexual molestation.

With people still reeling from accusations that former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky molested at least eight boys and the university either did nothing, or worse, was complicit in a cover-up, ESPN's "Outside the Lines" is reporting that longtime Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine is being investigated for molesting former ball boy Bobby Davis and his stepbrother, Mike Lang.

If true, this is scandal. This is real.

Police stressed that they are in the early stages of the investigation, and unlike the Penn State case, no charges have been filed. Fine, a fixture on the Syracuse staff for 35 years, has been put on administrative leave while the investigation continues, and no one has implicated any university administrators or Jim Boeheim, who said of Davis, "There is only one side to this story. He is lying."

But the mere thought that what was unthinkable until a week ago could have allegedly happened again at yet another powerful university that employs yet another iconic head coach is almost too much to bear.

It will, or at least it should, force us to reassess ourselves and our universities, to look hard into the mirror.

No longer can we call NCAA violations a "scandal," the convenient catch-all term used in headlines to describe everything from free meals to point-shaving.

Yes, college athletics still need to be cleaned up and rule violators ought to be punished.

But this week ought to serve up a heavy dose of perspective. The loss of the idyllic sense of amateurism doesn't even compare to the loss of the innocence of children.

There are no real victims when someone passes a few bucks under the table to secure the services of a recruit.

There are victims here, people who have suffered and will suffer for a lifetime as they try to come to terms with what's happened to them.

Fine's alleged second victim was compelled to come forward after being inundated with news of the Sandusky case. Two Pennsylvania attorneys have said possible Sandusky victims from the 1970s have come forward after hearing his interview with Bob Costas.

Who knows how many more people are out there suffering similarly, who are working at this very minute to summon the courage to put aside their own shame and say what has happened to them?

When the Penn State story first broke, my mother, a guidance counselor with 30 years of experience under her belt, looked at me and said quietly, "Do you think this is the only place that's happening?"

I shuddered. I didn't think it was happening anywhere.

Who did? Who could?

And now you can't help but wonder, where else? Who else?

If this can potentially happen at Syracuse and Penn State, two schools that have, for the most part, existed above the Mendoza Line of NCAA shame -- two programs that are run by men considered by their peers to be examples worth following -- then yes, it can happen anywhere.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
AP Photo/Steve C. WilsonFine has been at Jim Boeheims's side since the latter became SU's head coach in 1976.

And harsh reality, it probably has.

Maybe it's naive to think it can be stopped. Predators live next door in quaint subdivisions and coach the peewee football teams. They look like everyday Joes, not the face of evil.

But if anything can come out of this, perhaps it is a good hard look at how athletic departments are run and what really matters.

Instead of hashing out whether athletes deserve a cost of attendance stipend or trying to find ways to trim the fat off the NCAA rulebook, colleges and universities ought to be looking hard at the little fiefdoms called athletic departments on their campuses.

Long before this sordid and horrific week, women were going to the police alleging they'd been assaulted or raped at the hands of athletes. Instead of university officials stepping in, too often coaches with a vested interest in a player's availability meted out punishment.

Sometimes charges were brought. Often they disappeared, buried beneath an avalanche of a plea deal and a minor game suspension. Those accusations lacked the sensationalistic and particularly vile nature of these alleged crimes and so the news cycle quickly moved on.

There was no public outcry to change the culture of college sports, to stop deifying coaches or to fire the coaches who failed to punish the accused.

But those victims were no less traumatized. Their assaults no less shameful, their suffering every bit as real.

So maybe this is the wake-up call, the unfathomable month that will make college administrators adopt a no-tolerance rule.

Perhaps now coaches will no longer be left to serve as arbiters of justice and policemen of moral authority. Instead maybe people who don't have a vested interest in a player's availability or an assistant coach's helpfulness will mete out punishment.

Because there is no legislation to promote change.

The compliance office can't be called on to Band-Aid the problem.

This is real.

This is scandal.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball