My Take: A little more agnosticism from Boeheim, please
Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim, who initially called sex abuse allegations against assistant coach Bernie Fine “a bunch of a thousand lies.”
December 1st, 2011
01:42 PM ET

My Take: A little more agnosticism from Boeheim, please

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

One problem in this country is that Americans know too much about things they know nothing about.

A presidential candidate who got a D in economics presumes to tell the Chairman of the Federal Reserve how to conduct monetary policy. The wife of another presidential candidate says she knows precisely what her husband was or wasn’t doing on his business trips. And atheists and believers alike claim certain knowledge on questions that are clearly beyond our ken.

It seems to me that the United States could use a little more of what philosophers refer to as epistemological humility — admitting what we do not know.

Socrates famously stated in Plato’s “Apology” that he knew that he knew nothing, intimating that awareness of our own ignorance is the beginning of true wisdom. If so, true wisdom is in short supply in America today.

Take Penn State president Graham Spanier, who initially gave his "unconditional support" to his athletic director and his senior vice president for finance and business in the sex abuse scandal there. He called the charges "groundless," adding, "I have complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations about a former University employee."

Shortly thereafter, both officials stepped down, and each is now facing charges of perjury.

Or, take Jim Boeheim, a coach nearly as legendary in NCAA basketball as the recently fired Joe Paterno is in NCAA football. What did he do when allegations of sexual abuse surfaced nationally on November 17 against his long-time assistant Bernie Fine? Referring to one of Fine’s accusers, Boeheim said, “It is a bunch of a thousand lies that he has told.”

How did Boeheim know these allegations were false? Obviously, he did not. How could he possibly know what Fine did or did not do behind closed doors in hotel rooms or private homes?

But instead of admitting his ignorance, he said something truly unwise. Like so many other people in power before him, he ran to the defense of his friend.

After new allegations and new evidence emerged against Fine, who had served as an assistant coach for the Orangemen for 35 years, Syracuse fired him on Sunday. There are now investigations targeting Fine in both Syracuse and Pittsburgh, where his most recent accuser, Zach Tomaselli, claims that Boeheim's assistant tried to molest him in a hotel in 2002.

So now Boeheim is backtracking. In a statement released on Facebook, he called the most recent accusations against Fine “disturbing and deeply troubling.” He said he was “very shocked because I have never witnessed any of the activities that have been alleged.” And he called the University’s decision to fire his assistant “appropriate.”

Boeheim also said he regretted the statements he made earlier about this matter, admitting that he might have set back the investigation by inhibiting those he labeled liars from speaking their minds.

On Tuesday, in his first press conference since Fine's firing, Boeheim began, inappropriately, with a joke about how many reporters were in the room.  He then went on to demonstrate that he still doesn't get it. He didn't say, "I'm sorry." He didn't say he was wrong. And he certainly didn't say he was stupid.

There was one glimmer of hope, however, in an otherwise dark performance. In response to a question about his job status, Boeheim seemed to be inching toward some awareness of his own ignorance. "I do my job," he said. "What happened on my watch, we will see. When the investigation is done, we will find out what happened on my watch. We don't know what happened on my watch right now."

I understand why Boeheim initially came so forcefully to the defense of his friend. I also understand why Paterno at Penn State might have wanted to give his assistant, Jerry Sandusky, the benefit of the doubt in a parallel case now haunting Penn State. These same motivations, in my view, moved Roman Catholic clergy to cover up the sexual sins that have stained their Church for decades.

But sometimes leaders have to choose between being friends and being leaders. Sometimes they have to choose between being stupid and being wise. Jim Boeheim failed on both accounts in November. What he should have said was, "I don't know."

Fine says the accusations against him are “patently false in every aspect.” Are they? I don’t know. I wish Boeheim had been wise enough to admit the same weeks ago, when a little agnosticism could have done a lot of good.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Sexuality • Sports • United States

soundoff (219 Responses)
  1. catholic engineer

    “If God were small enough to be understood, He would not be big enough to be worshipped.”
    ― Evelyn Underhill .

    The difference between theist and atheist, is that the theist is able to contemplate something bigger than her/himself. The atheist occupies himself with things that always turn out to be less than himSELF.

    December 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Yo!

      "The atheist occupies himself with things that always turn out to be less than himSELF."

      Lying is a sin moron.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • makes sense

      Nice quote. If it has some truth to it, then why do so many believers act like they can speak for God, which cannot be understood?

      December 1, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      A bigoted, vacuous statement revealing a small mind.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • David

      Then why are people like Steven Hawking atheists? Faith is noting more than ignorance promoted as a virtue.

      December 1, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Mildred the Mouth

      There are endless ways to arrange and rearrange the sentimental clap trap.

      December 1, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
  2. Sheepleherder

    I believe it's generally a given that when you say "I've known this guy forever and he would never ..." the part that's never said is "I don't really know absolutely". It's just a given that you NEVER truly know anyone, not even yourself. There's nothing wrong in believing in the absolute innocence of a friend, and even saying so. This article is really a non-article in that regard and actually specious when you really think about it.

    December 1, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  3. Mitch

    Boeheim knew, period.

    December 1, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  4. ridiculous

    This is an absolutely deplorable article and should not be posted on CNN.

    December 1, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Chuckles

      How do you really feel?

      December 1, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • John

      Second guessing is easy. Did the author of this article get paid for the effort to write this article (and I use that term loosely)?

      December 1, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  5. btru

    Agree with this article regarding wisdom. These last few election terms are proof enough of that. Also, I can understand how some commentators say they would stick up for a friend in that situation. In my twenties I probably would not have seen anything wrong with his initial statement, but being older and realizing that some people are not exactly who you thought they were (even after 35 years), I would have toned down the initial remarks and not accuse the alleged victum of lying.

    December 1, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  6. asdf


    December 1, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  7. quitsa

    Another religious zealot who thinks he knows everything about everything. Give us a break!!!!

    December 1, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • btru

      Really? I have read many of his articles and have not found them to be of the "Holier than thou" sort. What exactly is he saying that is over the top?

      December 1, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • John

      He's guilty of violating his own premise. What he should say is, if faced with that same situation in his own life, he simply doesn't know how he'd react.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  8. Tony from Florida

    ESPN should be held accountable for the NOT submitting the tape to investigators years ago. There were three investigations that included the Syracuse Post-Standard; Syracuse Police and Syracuse University. As Chancellor Nancy Cantor stated, if the tapes had been provided, Fine would have been fired. Regarding Boeheim, we do not know if he knew or did not know of Fine's actions...unlike Joe Paterno and others at PSU! Until there is something that indicates otherwise, leave Boeheim alone!

    December 1, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Tom A

      Hold on- are you trying to say that Boeheim didn't know fine was investigated in 2002? Doubtful. Wouldn't they have talked about what was going on? He might not have seen the fire, but I can't imagine he didn't see smoke in 2002...

      December 1, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  9. Blah Blah

    Great.. I feel better already reading this blog.. again a blog slanted toward the profession of the writer.. The write makes a living espousing this stuff. So is this stuff the same old BS news...

    December 1, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  10. Scott

    So the moral of your story is "never stick up for your friends"? I agree that anyone can be ignorant of what even a close friend does, but, in general, if you know someone a long time you generally know their character. Do we really want a society where noone trusts anyone?

    December 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Gene

      Never stick up for your friends????? Once this behavior was reported to the police ......... friendship goes to the side; this assistant coach has a responsibility to lead young people NOT allegedly molest them. Its time coaches and administration act like responsible adults .... this has nothing to do with freindship ....it has to do with morals and what is right and what is wrong. This coach much like Penn State coaches and administration want to shove these instances under the door so their big time programs can continue to new heights...just as molesting is all about power, don't think that the Syracuse coach and Penn State coaches act in the interest of the maintenance of power. ....If I know a friend could potentially have molested a young person or I saw a young person ( ball boy) in that coaches room, I OWE it to that friend to immediately have an explanation and if not sufficient , that FRIEND should suffer the consequences of the law.
      People who say don't back your friends ...need to grow up or maybe take a morals and ethics course and counseling ....they need help in a lesser way just like the alleged molester

      December 1, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • jewelgirl`

      At the end of the day your can never really know anyone 100%. Ask Gloria Cain, Elizabeth Edwards, and I could go on and on. Our first reaction is usually always to defend the one we know and care about. State the obvious, that you've been friends for 35 years and that justice is what you want period and shut up.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  11. Tim

    Stephen Prothero,

    You sir, are a pompous idiot yourself. Part of being human *IS* emotions. While I agree with much that you said, I don't agree at all with HOW you are saying it. Hmmm... kinda like you are saying about Jim....

    December 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  12. Freethinksman

    If everyone admitted they didn't know the answers to the big questions, there would be no religion. Humility starts with dismantling the arrogance of religion.

    December 1, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Tim

      And then what? View the world entirely through scientific means? Are you assuming everyone who is religious are idiots? What about spirituality, should we throw that away then too? Nobody can prove God exists or does not exist, including you my dear friend, remember that 😉

      December 1, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Jack

      Tim, and you nor I can prove or disprove the existence of unicorns. Does that mean we should believe in them as well?

      You can't ask people to prove the negation of something. It is absolutely impossible.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Gene

      Morality and seeing a higher ground than the power of the program and the long term relationship with that asst coach to doing what is RIGHT ........ is far more important..... People commenting on this article seem to feel closing your eyes to this and protecting a powerhouse program is more important than stepping in to question the behavior or alleged behavior of the asst coach ...... is sad ..... another example of the moral degradation of the society. Indeed the statement " Power corrupts" is sadly true.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • vbscript2

      Jack, proving the negation of something is all science can do. That is, it can disprove hypotheses by observing counterexamples. Of course, it is impossible to observe a counterexample to the statement that God exists, thus such cannot be proven (at least not by science.)

      December 1, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  13. Dave

    hindsight is awesome, isn't it? you look back and see what people did wrong at the time, then with your recently-gained knowledge, you criticize them, publish an article, and reap the rewards.

    Of course, if it's YOUR longtime friend, who you've never seen or heard do anything inappropriate, I'm sure you'd just sit back and say "oh, I don't know, so I'll withhold judgment".

    That's a crappy friend. Sorry.

    December 1, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  14. B

    "How could he possibly know what Fine did or did not do behind closed doors in hotel rooms or private homes?"

    He couldn't, but the investigations that turned up no supporting evidence and the people who the victims said would corroborate their stories who then could not do so would provide Boeheim some support for claiming that these allegations were false.

    And the very fact that Boeheim could not and, as the facts indiciate right now, did not know what Fine did on his own time means he should not be fired. Should he have handled his initial public comments differently? Absolutely. But is making those statements given the past investigations that turned up no supporting evidence (since ESPN was hording this audio tape) a fireable offense? Come on.

    December 1, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Rick In Novato Calif

      I totally agree, If I had a best friend for over 35 years be accused of this, I to would call them a bunch of lies...Boeheim did nothing wrong there except wording it a little rough. The blame on this whole case is the Post Standard, ESPN and the Syracuse Police for not following through this in 2002.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • Stephen

      B's comment is the most insightful response I have seen on this situation. From Boeheim's prospective, there were multiple investigations which turned up no corroboration, his friend was accused again- 9 years later (now with heightened sensitivity to child molestation), what could this guy’s motive be- money?. He honestly believed his longtime friend to be innocent; therefore the accuser must be a liar. Now with new evidence, it is time to rethink his position- which is what he is doing. Could Boeheim have been more sensitive, sure, but think about what he went through 9 years ago with the same accusations.

      December 1, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • Mildred the Mouth

      And THAT Rick, is why you will never run anything bigger than your lawn mower.

      December 1, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
  15. Sampsonite

    There small another know with five.
    Together play they large parts about food country it.
    Help hard parts after time write her try.
    Against or place did big only of why think knew.
    Hand no several last that give do almost they.
    To man was you.

    Tell also change point toward.
    Animals today earth these sentence go land.
    Set day on any.
    Once need head whole next best also kind.
    They with was before.
    After who different things since under back place.

    Feet better heard point left once their.
    Were land night let those place earth kind have.
    In near has know against change one.
    These give what same him may there after also.

    Days since find men thing days across while high who.
    Head let high hand.
    With back himself across.
    Then tell thought next get between me being.
    Back thought began feet.

    December 1, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Brendan

      Wow...that was really terrible.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • maddows

      Ding, dong, bell,
      Puss’s in the well.
      Who put her in?
      Little Johnny Green.
      Who pulled her out?
      Little Tommy Stout.
      What a naughty boy was that,
      To try to drown poor puss cat,
      Who ne’er did him any harm,
      But killed all the mice in the farmer's barn

      December 1, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • jp

      Dude! Are You OK? Are you off your meds or something?

      December 1, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • DB

      Are you ok?

      December 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • steven harnack

      Did somebody take the 1 thousand monkeys off of the Shakespeare Project and tell them to write to CNN?

      December 1, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  16. Frank

    People naturally stand up for their friends. The religious writer of this article on the other hand is being paid to say the remarks he is making in order to stir the pot. Perhaps the writer should do a little "soul" searching and think about his remarks.

    December 1, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Brian in Minnesota

      Agreed. He's a basketball coach, not a pedophile expert. Hindsight is 20/20 as "they" say. This writer is coming off as stating the obvious in a purposefully hurtful way. Maybe in the future when people do evil things and their friends have to make a statement about it, they will remember to say I don't know. There have also been high profile cases where allegations have turned out to be untrue. Lets not forget Anthony Weiner's lies recently, Bill Clintons way back. People do bad things and leave the rest of us to deal with the human wreckage. Boeheim is hardly akin to the Catholic freaks who allowed so many to suffer- Jim did not know, that I know.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • Mildred the Mouth

      People stand up for their friends. Except those who are in positions of power, (and VERY well paid for it), who may be indirectly involved in the situation. They were hired because someone thought they had the judgement to shut up when it was appropriate.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • steven harnack

      Mildred gets it.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  17. FishySmell

    Does anyone else realize that the person who investigated the incidents for syracuse PD is the 19th all time leading scorer for 'Cuse? and he was recruited by Boeheim.

    They have to fire this guy, the whole keeps getting worse and worse. If this were a prestigous college like PSU, he'd be gone already

    December 1, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • B

      Boeheim should not be punished for any misconduct on behalf of a law enforcement organization. Cuse basketball is huge in Syracuse, but Boeheim doesn't run the police chief. If any law enforcement officers didn't do their jobs then they should be fired.

      December 1, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • NittanyBob

      If this were a pretigious college like PSU? I went to PSU (as it seems you did too) but let's be serious. Academically speaking Syracuse is far more prestigious than PSU. And they aren't far behind in sports anymore either.

      December 1, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • marc

      "If this were a prestigious college like Penn State....."........to the poster who uttered those ridiculous and laughable words.....SU is a VERY prestigious University....not college. What a tool.

      December 1, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • FishySmell

      It's not the same at all, not even close, but thats what they said at PSU about paterno (that he doesnt run the school or the PD)

      December 1, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • GetReal

      "If this were a prestigious college like PSU" LOL Someone got rejected from Syracuse and had to settle for the state school..

      December 1, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • B

      That is what they said at PSU, and no matter what you have to admit both coaches carry much more clought in their respective communities than most do. But the biggest difference here, other than the actual grand jury indictment and 100s of abuse claims pending that isn't present in Syracuse, is that once the school was informed NOTHING was done, and Paterno left it at that. When the school here was informed investigations were done, police were notified, etc. How effective those investigations were is always up for debate, but is it Boeheim's responsibilty to not only ensure investigations were completed but then to question their validity? He is a basketball coach, not head of the University Legal Department

      December 1, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • StevefromJacksonville

      PSU is more prestigious than syracuse? That's laughable.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • FishySmell

      it may be prestigous in NY, but no one cares outside of NY.

      And yes, i know the difference between colleges and universities. I'm SHOCKED that you didnt try to insult my inteligence by commenting on my improper use of "whole" instead of "hole" as well!!! Since you didnt jump all over that Im guessing your University didnt teach grammer and that means i'm an idiot for making a typo, right? hahahaha you cuse people. all you want to say is "this isn't PSU", but like it or not, you're grouped into the same bunch now. You guys and the catholic church

      December 1, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • StevefromJacksonville

      I'm not from NY, nor did I go to Cuse. I have lived in Pennsylvanie for 20 years, and Syracuse is considered highly prestigious here. Lots of kids want to go there. My kid applied there and PSU, as did all of his friends. 1/9 got into Syracuse, 9/9 got into Penn State. No one here is defending Bernie Fine, just calling out how stupid you sound.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Michael

      Sorry but the Syracuse PD was following the LAW. The statute of limitations prevented the investigation! The Law failed the accuser. It was just too late for the Syracuse PD.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  18. mike

    Boeheim should be fired just as Paterno was..... Fine bought kids on flights and on trips and Boeheim didn't question it?


    December 1, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Bob

      Or maybe, we (media especially, Nancy Grace doubly) should just wait until there is actual evidence and a trial before we declare people guilty and ruin a bunch of lives. And you know what is really "rediculous", people who can't spell ridiculous (especially when the website underlines it in red when you misspell it).

      December 1, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Speller


      December 1, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Frank

      Please get your facts as well as your grammer straight.

      December 1, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  19. Brian Edwards

    "One problem in this country is that Americans know too much about things they know nothing about."

    Dude, take some of your own medicine. Who are you to write this story? What do you know of any of these topics? Nothing, and no one, that's what and who. If Americans would just mind their own business this country would be so much better off.

    December 1, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • joe

      what are you trying to say....??? your sentence structure is very poor. Do you proof read your stuff???

      December 1, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • churchofcoltrane

      Brian Edwards,

      You seem to have entirely missed the point of this article. It is actually time for people to get up into the business of the protected elite. Those who have committed no crime will have no need to worry, and no need to fall.

      The article is methodically written, and the author consistently substantiates its reasoning for being written. Your appeal to a (lack of) authority is, at best, unintelligible.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Robert

      He's not saying he knows about anything. He's saying that a little doubt is good. There are too many people who are experts about everything. It shouldn't matter if the American people agree with a stimulus, or a tax cut. Those decisions should be left to the experts. Atheists preach the gospel of "I don't know", they are about doubt. Religious people have too much certainty.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  20. Guywho_likes facts

    I can't be the only one to notice the author begins this with: "One problem in this country is that Americans know too much about things they know nothing about." – and then decides to even continue writing...

    You are right about that much, you don't know anything about the Syracuse situation and should have stopped there but then how else would you be able to show your hypocrisy, non-factual article, and lack of credibility on the issue...

    Opinion or not...they should be backed up with facts....even a little fact...

    December 1, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Rick In Novato Calif

      Totally Agree....

      December 1, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.