Are we deranged? Is lynching back in fashion? Have we gone through Alice’s sentence first, verdict afterwards looking glass? I’m referring to the current American pastime of drawing and quartering alleged child molesters, along with those caught downwind of the manure fan.
I don’t know whether former Penn State football assistant Jerry Sandusky or recently-fired Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine are guilty. Perhaps they are, but in a country supposedly based on law, people are presumed innocent until proven otherwise through a procedure called a trial. It’s true that trials make mistakes (I, for one, have always felt that the 12 Angry Men got it wrong, and the kid did kill his father), but they are better than the systematic dismantling of the rule of law by infuriated mobs, the media, and an outraged public.
In the Sandusky case, reasonable people may contend that the prominence of Penn State football, the despicable nature of the alleged acts, and the mere volume of accusations make widespread, and highly publicized, assumptions of guilt inevitable. They may point out that Sandusky at least did not lose his job since he had already left his coaching position (hardly solace to him if he should prove to be innocent).
In Mr. Fine’s case, it may be that no one has an absolute right to a particular job and that, regardless of guilt or innocence, circumstances may make it imperative to terminate a person’s employment. But that would be tough to sustain if it was false accusations that made Fine’s position untenable.
And, in the Penn State case, what about a university president, an athletic director, and a football coach, fired for alleged acts of omission? Procedural errors would still be errors even if Sandusky were found innocent. But, dismissed so swiftly, could these officials have received the due process necessary to determine their guilt or innocence? If not, should those who did the firing have their heads put on the chopping block?
Is it possible that the ferocity of the publicity, the apparent assumption of guilt, and the sudden spike in the Pennsylvania and New York unemployment rates, may be directly related to the image-boosting and bank account-filling that football provides to Penn State, and basketball to Syracuse? Maybe, though it’s hard to believe that university decision-makers would ever sacrifice individuals on the altar of Division I sports and TV revenues …..
In these kinds of situations, it may be helpful to remember the 2006 accusation of rape leveled against members of the Duke University lacrosse team that led some of us to assume their guilt, wrongly it turns out. Or to recall the more recent rape accusation against then-IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn that sounded very persuasive, but that turned out to be, if not demonstrably false, too weak to warrant prosecution.
Premature head-removal is indiscriminate, messy, and almost always irreversible. Best to let justice take its course and then, if it turns out that the crowd was right all along, we can justifiably demand, Off With Their Heads!