Rick Pitino Affair Has Been Virtually Whitewashed By the Media


On Monday night the Louisville Cardinals won the NCAA championship under the leadership of coach Rick Pitino, who was also just elected to the Hall of Fame. Strangely absent from the media's reporting, however, has been any mention of Pitino's affair in 2003, in which he had sex with a woman who would eventually marry the team's equipment manager. Later, Pitino — a practicing Catholic — paid for her to get an abortion. The whitewashing of Pitino's affair exemplifies the ubiquitous hubris in the world of college athletics, where success trumps integrity thanks in part to the willingness of the media to ignore their transgressions.

In 2003, Karen Cunagin approached Pitino at a restaurant after he had been drinking at a party in a restaurant, and asked him to call her son and encourage him to do well in sports and school. The two had consensual sex in the restaurant after closing. Both Sypher and Pitino were married with children.

Two weeks later, Cunagin called and told Pitino she was pregnant, and that he had to be the father. Pitino told Tim Sypher, the equipment manager, to pick her up and bring her to Sypher's condo. Pitino, who is Catholic, gave her $3,000 for an abortion after she told him she couldn't afford it because she didn't have health insurance.

Cunagin married Sypher six months later. Karen Sypher saw Pitino at team events, but didn't say anything for years.

Then, in February 2009, Karen Sypher had an accomplice call Pitino and say that he knew Pitino had raped someone, and that he would notify the media. Pitino suspected the caller referred to Sypher, and he met with the Syphers. Karen denied any knowledge of the calls, but later had her husband deliver a list of demands. In return she would "protect Rick Pitino's name for life." The list included monthly cash payments of $3,000, college tuition for her children, a house, and two cars. Prosecutors did not charge Tim Sypher in the case. In March, Karen Sypher simplified her demands to $10,000,000 and divorced Tim Sypher.

In April, Pitino told the FBI Sypher was extorting him. After initially denying the claims, she admitted she had arranged the calls. Prosecutors charged Sypher with extortion and giving false statements to the FBI. Two months later, she accused Pitino of raping her at the restaurant and at Tim Sypher's condo. Pitino denied the claims, and Pitino's assistant, who was at the restaurant while they had sex, said it was consensual. Prosecutors determined Pitino was not in the state on the date Sypher said she raped her in the condo, and declined to prosecute Pitino for rape.

Pitino admitted that he had sex with Sypher and paid for her abortion, but did not resign. The Louisville athletics department stood behind Pitino. Sypher received seven years in prison for her extortion attempt.

Rick Pitino did not do anything illegal. But his affair reveals him to be something less than his public image, which he sells to the public in his books and motivational speeches (at $30,000-$50,000 a pop). Pitino isn't some lapsed Catholic: he brings a reverend on team trips and prays before games.

When the media whitewashes life stories, they implicitly condone bad behavior. Holding celebrities accountable doesn't make them bad people, it just makes them human. This is all the more important in the sports world, where we are eager to idolize people and ignore their faults as long as they perform. When the media ignores transgressions, others inevitably believe that they can get away with future ones.