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Posted: Tuesday December 16, 2008 12:04PM; Updated: Tuesday December 16, 2008 12:14PM
Seth Davis Seth Davis >

Devendorf shouldn't be allowed to play while awaiting appeal

Story Highlights

Devendorf was suspended by Syracuse after an altercation with a female student

Orange coach Jim Boeheim is allowing Devendorf to play while he appeals

Devendorf, who was already on probation, may not get a decision until Jan. 12

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Syracuse's Eric Devendorf is being allowed to play while appealing a suspension for allegedly hitting a female student.
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All too often, when a college athlete gets into legal trouble, his coach will justify a decision to keep playing him by reminding us that a person is innocent until proven guilty. That may be true in a court of law, but it's not the case in the athletic arena. Nobody is entitled to play college sports. When it comes to deciding whether the athlete should play or sit, it falls to the coach to be the investigator, lawyer, judge and jury.

Last week, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim came uncomfortably close to using this bogus rationale to explain his decision to play Eric Devendorf, the Orange's talented 6-foot-4 junior shooting guard, while Devendorf appeals a student judicial board's decision to suspend him for the rest of the academic year because of allegations that Devendorf struck a female student. When asked last week by the Syracuse Post Standard why Devendorf would still be in uniform, Boeheim replied, "That's his absolute right." When I asked Boeheim the same question on Monday, he initially responded along those same lines, saying, "That's the rule. There's nothing I can do about that. Any student is eligible for anything they're doing until the final appeal is heard. So it's pretty simple."

When pressed, however, Boeheim conceded that the decision to play Devendorf is not, in fact, a simple formality. Like every other player on Boeheim's roster, Devendorf is on the court because the coach has decreed it should be so. "I make judgments every day on who is playing," Boeheim said. "Based on the information I have, he should be playing basketball right now."

I give Boeheim credit for accepting responsibility, but I still disagree with the choice he has made. Devendorf was already on disciplinary probation at Syracuse for causing physical harm to another student last spring -- a fact that was not known publicly until last Thursday's hearing. Given the seriousness of the charges, and given that a five-person panel of Devendorf's fellow students recommended the suspension, Boeheim should not allow Devendorf to play in games until and unless his suspension is overturned on appeal.

Here are the facts. Shortly after midnight on Halloween night, Kimberly Smith, a 20-year-old Syracuse junior, drove her 2007 Hyundai Elantra to an SU fraternity party. According to a report filed by a Syracuse police officer, as well as a second report filed by a university public safety official, Devendorf was walking out of the party with a dozen or so other students, including several basketball players. In the complaints, Smith alleges that her car was kicked twice, prompting her to get out and confront the group. According to Smith, that led to an argument with Devendorf during which he called Smith derogatory names. Then, she says, he struck her in the jaw.

The officers found two dents on Smith's car, but because she could not identify who kicked the vehicle, she said she did not want to press charges on that front. She did, however, want to press charges against Devendorf. Since Smith was not injured and did not need medial attention, Devendorf was cited for harassment instead of assault. The Onondaga County District Attorney has said he would not decide whether to prosecute Devendorf until the university had completed its proceedings against him.

Devendorf has admitted to getting into a verbal argument with 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."

The judicial board found that Devendorf had violated three codes of conduct, including harassment, but it found him "not responsible" for causing physical harm or violating any laws. But because Devendorf was already on probation, the board decided that further probation would be insufficient. Hence the suspension. Devendorf's lawyer will file an appeal on Wednesday afternoon, and from there the university's appeals board, which consists of two faculty members and a student, has 10 business days to render its decision. Because the school will be on winter break at the end of this month, that decision could come as late as Jan. 12. In the meantime, Devendorf is permitted to be on campus, go to class and yes, play in basketball games -- as long as his coach decides he should.

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