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A Fine Mess In Syracuse

December 1, 2011 - John Whittaker
Saturday, after watching an overmatched Syracuse football team try and fail to clinch a bowl berth against Cincinnati, the News Wife, the News Dad and I were walking the concourse of the Carrier Dome.

We stopped at a gift shop and looked at the really cool pieces of Syracuse memorabilia that $200 could purchase before common sense re-entered my head. Not wanting to blow my Christmas money on presents for myself, we resumed our walk out of the dome when I saw a trophy case in the wall. Sure enough, it was the 2003 NCAA National Championship trophy, complete with a net cut down from the Superdome in New Orleans.

Immediately, my thoughts turned from the football game we had just watched to that April night eight years ago — rushing home from a City Council meeting to watch the game with my brother, cheering with every big shot made by the Orange, high-fiving Matt when Hakin Warrick blocked Michael Lee's 3-pointer at the buzzer, watching Syracuse cut down that very net now staring me in the face, staying up until 1 a.m. watching every bit of postgame news coverage I could get my hands on.

Of course, we all got our pictures taken next to the trophy.

I was happy.

Fast forward to Tuesday night, when the Syracuse basketball team played Eastern Michigan. There was no doubt the Orange would win. The only real interest from a sporting standpoint was whether the Orange would cover a ridiculously large point spread. The third-ranked team in the country took care of business, with James Southerland playing perhaps his best game in a Syracuse uniform. Dion Waiters continued his coming-out party and Kris Joseph continued to play like the steady senior he is. Fab Melo looked good, and Rakeem Christmas showed some unreal athleticism around the rim.

I was happy.

Less than 30 seconds into the post-game news conference, I was sad again.

That's life as a Syracuse fan right now. None of us in the orange and blue-clad legion who were so looking forward to this basketball season know what to feel right now. It's easy to say I'm angry and sad and leave it at that.

That's too easy though.

As more information comes out, I alternate between angry, sad and incredulous. The whole tale is so sordid and sleazy that I have trouble wrapping my head around it. When this scandal first broke, I wrote that if the allegations were proven true that I wouldn't follow college sports anymore. I'm glad now that I never posted that blog, because it's not that easy and simple. It seems each piece of evidence that comes out contradicts something we learned before. Nothing fits where it should in the grand scheme of things. We have no idea who to believe, especially in light of Penn State.

In a way, I wish the Syracuse case was as cut and dried as the Penn State abuse case. At least the Penn State grand jury report spelled out in pretty clear detail who was at fault for what and made assigning blame and taking action easy. The university president, athletic director and football coach obviously had to be fired. Jerry Sandusky rightly was skewered and deserves whatever he gets. It was all there in black and white — good guy, bad guy, victim. Despise the bad guys, feel bad for the victims. Clean house of those who did wrong.

The Bernie Fine case isn't nearly as clear. There were three different investigations, none of which could corroborate the original abuse claims. Then, the allegations resurface, accusations are made and investigations begin — all in the public eye, playing out day by day like a never-ending real-life soap opera.

On a random Thursday night ESPN teases breaking news of a sex scandal at Syracuse University involving the basketball team. We watch the interviews and can't believe what we hear. Then, we find out there was an investigation by the university, the Post-Standard and ESPN in 2003 that turned up no verification. The basketball coach, based on this, staunchly defends his assistant coach only to see a tape come out in which the assistant coach's wife not only basically admits to knowing a child was abused in her home, but in which she admits that she, too, took advantage of a kid. Of course, the tape is eight years old and was held for reasons that nobody can really explain. Now, a third victim whose own father doesn't believe him surfaces. At the same time, given the tapes we heard last week, you have to give the guy the benefit of the doubt.

I hate reading the Syracuse Post-Standard's website, but I find myself going there at least 10 times a day to see if there is anything new. I can't stand watching SportsCenter, but I keep watching for reasons that I can't quite put my finger on. I wish Bob Ley and Mark Schwartz would just go away for the way they've treated a coach who we don't know did anything wrong, but I keep watching their reports. You feel for the victims, but the case is so sordid that nobody really comes out as a sympathetic figure. Not Bobby Davis. Not Mark Lang. Not Zach Tomaselli. Certainly not Jim Boeheim.

One of the indelible marks in my memory — not quite on par with the first date with my wife or my wedding day, but a nice memory nonetheless — is coming across a photo in the Syracuse Post-Standard of Boeheim wearing a ridiculous orange cowboy hat and carrying the NCAA Championship trophy as he got off the plane from New Orleans after that 2003 national championship game. The smile he had on his face and the goofy hat on his head said so much. Nobody can take this away from me. The detractors can all go away now. I've won the big one. There wouldn't be any more pressure from the media, the boosters and the university to finally deliver a championship.

Well, the pressure's back coach.

I've always liked Boeheim. I like the way he shows loyalty to his ex-players involved, keeping them involved in the program when their playing days are over. He's not a 22-hour a day coach. He spends time with his wife and family. He raises tons of money for Coaches vs. Cancer. He treats his players like adults — and they can't handle that freedom and keep their grades up or stay out of trouble, they don't play. I like the fact that he'll tell the media exactly what he thinks, especially when he's asked a dumb question. I love the way he sticks to what he does rather than cave to the outsiders who don't know nearly as much about basketball as he does.

But, that stubbornness could have cost him this time. I think it's far too early for anyone to say Boeheim should be fired for the Bernie Fine mess. Unlike Penn State, we don't have a grand jury report that says he did anything wrong. But, in this climate of shoot first and ask questions later 24-hour news cycle, the fact we don't have all the facts doesn't matter. The media demand action because they have nothing else to talk about. Civil rights groups demand action because that's what they do. All of this is based on two off-the-cuff statements to the media that, in retrospect, shouldn't have been given. Boeheim's a loyal guy — look no further than Bernie Fine having a job after losing his fastball as a recruiter in the 1990s. It's no surprise that the team took off when Rob Murphy joined Mike Hopkins on the recruiting trail. Fine was demoted, but Boeheim was loyal to a fault. He kept Fine on the staff because that's what a good friend does. When a friend is suspended over allegations that you think have been disproven three times already, a loyal guy springs to a friend's defense.

Who thinks the friend is actually guilty? Boeheim's defense, for me, makes me think he really didn't know anything about what was going on in Fine's house and hotel rooms. I have a hard time believing Boeheim says what he said having any inkling of what was going on behind closed doors. At the same time, it's hard to believe, knowing rumors were swirling and investigations going on, that Boeheim didn't at least ask Fine for the truth. It's hard to believe that Boeheim was never called during the investigations even as a character witness for a guy he's known since college. Why didn't the victims, knowing they had the tape, push harder with the police or the district attorney's office? Why didn't anyone ever go to Boeheim? Would the university have been justified in firing Fine when the allegations first came out, even if they couldn't be verified?

After two weeks of Bernie Fine news, I only know three things for sure.

This whole mess makes me angry and sad.

 
 

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