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Syracuse Assistant Coach Bernie Fine Fired in Abuse Probe

Syracuse Assistant Coach Bernie Fine Fired Amid Abuse Probe
Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine. Photographer: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Syracuse University fired assistant men’s basketball coach Bernie Fine amid a police investigation into allegations of child sexual assaults.

Fine, 65, was in his 36th season at Syracuse, the longest tenure by any assistant college basketball coach in Division I. He had been placed on paid administrative leave Nov. 18 after Syracuse City Police re-opened a case the school closed in 2005 following a four-month probe.

Initially accused by two former Syracuse team ball boys, Fine was fired after a third accuser came forward and ESPN played what it said was a 2002 recording of a telephone conversation that appeared to be Fine’s wife acknowledging her husband’s behavior.

“I believe the university took the appropriate step,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said in a statement last night, reversing his position of previously supporting Fine. “What is most important is that this matter be fully investigated and that anyone with information be supported to come forward so that the truth can be found.”

The Syracuse case comes after former Penn State University defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was charged on Nov. 5 with sexually assaulting eight young boys during a 15-year period. Football coach Joe Paterno and university President Graham B. Spanier were fired amid criticism they didn’t do enough to prevent the alleged abuse. Neither was charged with a crime. Sandusky has denied any criminal conduct.

‘Suspect Claims’

Fine’s lawyer, Karl Sleight, didn’t immediately return messages left by Bloomberg News. Sleight and fellow attorney Donald Martin said in a statement yesterday that Fine wouldn’t comment further, as it “would only invite and perpetuate ancient and suspect claims,” ESPN said.

Scott Rosner, an assistant professor in the Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said college sports has been shaken to its core by the two sexual abuse scandals.

“The allegations are horrific and in direct contravention of the values that college sports profess to promote,” Rosner, the academic director of the Wharton Sports Business Academy, said via e-mail.

High-Profile Programs

Rosner said it’s disturbing that the incidents involved two high-profile programs and that the initial institutional response in each instance was wanting. Syracuse’s basketball program and Penn State’s football team both rank fifth all-time in victories at college sports’ highest level.

“There seems at first blush to be a culture of cover-up combining to lead one to question the integrity of the system as a whole,” Rosner added. “While this may be unfair, it seems to be the current unfortunate reality.”

Syracuse officials said on Nov. 18 that the school was contacted in 2005 by a man who said he had reported inappropriate contact to the police. The matter wasn’t pursued because the statute of limitations had expired.

Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor said the university conducted an investigation at the time, found no corroboration, and closed the case.

Cantor, in a letter to alumni that was received by Bloomberg News’ Scott Soshnick, an alumnus, said yesterday that the school has cooperated fully with local police since the case was re-opened. The decision to fire Fine came after “troubling new allegations” emerged yesterday, Cantor said in the letter.

“Frankly, the events of the past week have shaken us all,” Cantor said.

Ball Boys

Two former ball boys were the first to accuse Fine of molesting them; one when he was in seventh grade, the other when he was in fifth or sixth grade, according to ESPN. The sports network played a voice recording from a 2002 telephone conversation which it said was Fine’s wife talking to one of the former ball boys, now 39, accusing her husband of abuse. On the tape, the wife said she worried that her husband had sexually molested him in their home and that she felt powerless to stop it, ESPN reported. The tape was confirmed to be the wife’s voice by an independent voice recognition expert, ESPN said.

The accuser made the recording of Fine’s wife because he needed proof for police to believe his accusations, he told ESPN. The accuser told ESPN that he and Fine’s wife had a sexual relationship when he was 18, and he eventually told Bernie Fine about it.

Third Accuser

The third person to come forward, a 23-year-old, said yesterday that Fine molested him in 2002 in a Pittsburgh hotel room, touching him “multiple” times in that one incident, according to the Associated Press. The former ball boy said he signed an affidavit accusing Fine after meeting with Syracuse police last week in Albany, New York, AP said.

The 23-year-old said the Sandusky scandal and his desire to support Fine’s other accusers prompted him to come forward, AP said. The accuser also faces sexual assault charges in Maine involving a 14-year-old boy, to which he has pleaded not guilty, AP said. The accuser’s father told AP that he was “100 percent sure” that his son was lying about the interaction with Fine.

Boeheim yesterday called the latest allegations “disturbing and deeply troubling. I am personally very shocked because I have never witnessed any of the activities that have been alleged.”

Boeheim’s Initial Reaction

Boeheim defended Fine after the initial allegations, saying the accusers were lying and “trying to get money” following the revelations that came out of the Sandusky case, he told the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Fine, a Syracuse alumnus, returned to the school as an assistant in 1976 when Boeheim was hired as coach.

Syracuse has a 4-0 record this season and is ranked fifth in the Associated Press basketball poll.

At Penn State, Athletic Director Tim Curley, 57, and Gary Schultz, 62, a senior vice president who oversaw university police, were charged with perjury and failing to report the allegations. Curley was put on leave and Schultz retired. Sandusky, 67, Curley and Schultz all deny wrongdoing.

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