That’s how long both a major sports network – ESPN – and police had a smoking gun tape of a conversation between the wife of Syracuse University Assistant Basketball coach Bernie Fine and one of his sexual abuse victims.
And in all that time they did nothing.
Not until a similar scandal erupted at Penn State. Now, apparently, it’s time to “do something”.
When the Penn State scandal took off there was much discussion about those who knew and did nothing, much of it focusing harshly on an assistant coach named McQueary, who was almost universally faulted for “not doing enough” when he allegedly observed assistant coach Jerry Sandusky raping a 10 year old boy in the campus showers. Specifically, many said McQueary should have gone right to police and by-passed head coach Joe Paterno if necessary.
Yet McQueary didn’t have anything on tape. He didn’t have a smoking gun. What if not only Sandusky but his alleged victim denied the allegations? No matter what McQueary saw, there’s no guarantee something like that wouldn’t have happened.
That would be the end of McQueary’s career, right? And maybe worse.
Going to the police is not a guarantee of anything. They can be corrupt. Or lazy. They are often highly politicized. They can use their clout to charge the complaining witness instead of the alleged criminal. There are people they protect and whose wrongdoing is overlooked or covered up. And there are others who are extremely vulnerable.
Which category do you fall in? When might you go from one to the other? There’s no way of knowing for sure, but there are likelihoods.
Yet the police who had the smoking gun tape in the Bernie Fine matter have yet to receive the ritual denunciation that McQueary got.
Even when the police are not corrupted or politicized, they are often belligerently over-confident, with a simplistic and overblown self-image that renders them tragically prone to serious errors.
It’s a very interesting development in Syracuse. A perfect rebuke to all those who were up on their high horses about what McQueary should have done, close on the heels of those misplaced accusations: a nearly identical scandal at another major sports school demonstrating that “going to the police” is uncomfortably likely not to matter at all, no matter how good the evidence is.
And notice, too, that the only news outlet making a point of the police failure is across the pond in the UK, at enough of a remove to insulate the newspaper from any retaliation.
People need to wake up. Authority has its place, and perhaps presumptions in its favor, but it is not a talisman or substitute for reason. One of the mantras of the political right is “personal responsibility”, which is then regarded as completely discharged as soon as a matter of concern is passed off to an “authority”, especially the police. This is mentally lazy, irresponsible and dangerous.
The police are at most one authority among others. Lawyers are also authorities, officers of the courts, part of the disappointingly feckless third branch of government. They should take that role more seriously. So should the press.
So should the public.