Syracuse's Devendorf's playing privileges should be revoked (cont.)
Boeheim is basing his decision on his readings of the police reports, testimony from the hearing and conversations with Devendorf and the other players. After sifting through all of that information, Boeheim paints a much different picture than the one described by Kimberly Smith. "There are three witnesses who said Eric did not touch anybody, did not hit anybody. The five-person student panel chose not to believe those witnesses. I do," he said. "They all said basically the same thing. The girl got out of the car, then she started yelling at Eric. Eric yelled back, the girl approached Eric, got right up next to him, they were yelling at each other, Eric pushed her away in the chest area, one time, and then walked away. Okay? That's the information I have."
Boeheim is not denying any wrongdoing on Devendorf's part. He just takes exception with the severity of the penalty. "He should not have a verbal confrontation with another student, period, so I do think there should be some punishment," he said. "There have been numerous cases of people that are on probation that violated the code of conduct that were not suspended. That's why we think this is too severe a punishment."
Boeheim also pointed out that the testimony his players gave at the hearing was the same version they gave to police. Boeheim would not come right out and say Smith is lying, but he did claim her credibility is in doubt because she has changed her story. For example, the report filed by the Syracuse police department indicated that Devendorf hit her with a "closed fist," but Smith testified to the judicial board that he hit her with the heel of his open hand.
Smith's attorney, Richard Kesnig, told me that the term "closed fist" came from the officer, not his client, so her story has stayed consistent. "She never used the words 'closed fist' and she never claimed she was injured," Kesnig said. "What's her motivation [for lying]? There is nothing in this for her other than to do the right thing. We're not getting any money. We're not getting any publicity. Her picture has never been published. She has never granted an interview ... One officer tried to discourage her from pressing charges, telling her she would be subject to ridicule and harassment, and I've got to tell you, you should be proud of a girl like this. She said no, enough is enough."
Unless someone was actually there, of course, it's impossible to discern exactly what happened. (As the old saying goes, there are three sides to every story: his side, her side, and the truth.) That's why I had no problem with Boeheim for playing Devendorf after the charges were initially brought. It seemed fair to let the process play out to see if Smith's allegations had merit.
Now, however, we have a verdict, even if it is subject to appeal. We also now know that Devendorf was already on probation. If Boeheim wants to let him participate in practice and sit on the bench during games, fine. If Devendorf is reinstated in January, he would have only missed seven games. (He has already played in two games since his suspension was handed down, including Monday night's 72-69 loss to Cleveland State.) If he's reinstated by the appeals board, he can rejoin the team with plenty of time for the stretch run. If Devendorf's suspension is upheld, then the Orange would have gotten a head start on learning how to play without him. And Devendorf can still return to school, and the team, in the fall of 2009 if he wants.
Boeheim can cite numerous precedents to support his handling of this case, including from his own school. Last year, three of his players were accused by another student of sexual assault, but no criminal charges were brought and the school only put them on disciplinary probation. Then again, there are other examples where a coach was more stringent. When Notre Dame guard Kyle McAlarney was arrested on a marijuana misdemeanor charge in December 2006, his coach, Mike Brey, barred him from playing in games immediately. (The university later suspended McAlarney for a semester.) This fall, San Diego State coach Steve Fisher suspended his best player, forward Lorenzo Wade, after Wade was charged with burglary for allegedly stealing a television from a woman's apartment. Fisher reinstated Wade earlier this month after a judge dismissed the charges.
Every case is different, and I grant this is all subjective. However, I would be less unsettled by Boeheim's position if he indicated he was even the slightest bit conflicted. Instead, he said, "It's not a hard decision. This is one of the easiest decisions I've ever made. I talked to the witnesses and they told me what happened. If I suspend Eric, I would lose the whole team. I can't look them in the eye and say I'm not going to believe you."
Reasonable people can differ on what Boeheim should do at this point, but we should all agree that competing in college athletics is not an "absolute right." It is a privilege. Eric Devendorf deserves to have his day in court, but in the meantime, his privilege to be on the court ought to be revoked.
Seth Davis' book, When March Went Mad: Magic, Bird and the Game That Transformed Basketball, will be published by Times Books in March, 2009.