Temple freshman Cunningham receives a shameful education in due process

December 27, 1992|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- Sometimes, doing what is right can be done for the wrong reasons.

Sometimes, doing what is right can be done at the wrong time,

Sometimes, doing what is right can be made to look self-serving and hypocritical.

Sometimes, doing what is right is not nearly as simple as it seems.

Which brings us to the case of Temple University and a freshman student named William Cunningham.

What separates Cunningham from most students at Temple is his size. He is 6 feet 11 and, depending upon his previous meal, around 270 pounds. As you might imagine, he is a basketball player.

In October, Cunningham was involved in an incident outside a dormitory in which a car may or may not have been stolen, in which threats may or may not have been made. Cunningham was charged with second-degree burglary; specifically, auto theft.

The operative word here is "charged."

Not "convicted."

Not "acquitted."

Only accused. His day in court: Presumably, and hopefully, the guilt or innocence of William Cunningham will be determined at his trial, which is scheduled for Jan. 14.

Then he will get what each of us is entitled to, his day in court.

What William Cunningham has not received that each of us is entitled to is presumption of innocence.

In the minds of many, William Cunningham was guilty as soon as they heard or read that he had been charged. It is, sadly, human nature to automatically assume the worst, to deny benefit of doubt.

And saddest of all, it is automatic to make a presumption of guilt when the accused is an African-American, which William Cunningham happens to be, and which should not matter at all but which does, and matters so much that we should all hang our heads in shame and remorse.

But of all those who denied William Cunningham his precious due process, his cherished constitutional right to be presumed innocent until found guilty, the most grievous offender was his own school. An athlete singled out: Temple declared William Cunningham ineligible to play basketball for it. That action invited only one inference: Temple believed William Cunningham to be guilty.

He was allowed to practice and to sit on the bench during games, but in civilian attire, which of course only served to single him out even more.

Justice, of a sort, was partially served more than two months after William Cunningham was declared ineligible.

Temple reversed itself.

Three days before Christmas, the school's president made the announcement. The next night, when Temple played at Penn State, William Cunningham played in each half, 11 minutes in all. He was expected to play again last night, in the Owls' nationally televised game at No. 23 Cincinnati.

Some people are outraged. But their rage is misplaced.

Their rage is caused by what they perceive as yet another example of preferential treatment accorded a jock. In fact, William Cunningham has been penalized precisely because he is an athlete. Were he just a faceless student, then no notoriety, no notice, would have come his way.

Temple's suspicious timing: Worst of all was the timing. On the same day that Temple reinstated William Cunningham, it also admitted that in all likelihood its starting center, Frazier Johnson, soon will be ineligible due to academic failures.

How convenient.

Lose a center, gain a center, same day.

Temple gets around to doing what is right, but in doing so leaves itself open to all sorts of speculation about its motivation.

Does the school really care about William Cunningham's constitutional rights or about having a tall man in the middle?

Too, the school had to be prodded into lifting the probation of William Cunningham. This was not, all the high-minded rhetoric to the contrary, some voluntary act of magnanimity. It required a request from William Cunningham's attorney that he be accorded the same rights as any university student charged with a felony to force Temple to do, finally, what is right.

William Cunningham may be just a college freshman, but already he has gotten quite an education.

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