Commentary

Syracuse locals: What to believe?

On game day in Syracuse, a town and a campus are filled with mixed emotions

Originally Published: November 29, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- A lone proselytizer stood at the foot of the Syracuse campus, offering up his biblical interpretations and occasional rants.

As two women walked by, one looked at the other and started to ask a question.

"Is he here because of …"

[+] EnlargeSyracuse
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliBesides the presence of some media trucks, the SU campus didn't seem all that different Tuesday.

Before she could finish, her friend cut her off.

"Nah, he's here all the time."

That's the way it is these days in Syracuse, where everything is viewed through the prism of scandal. Since the news broke that now-former associate head coach Bernie Fine was being investigated for alleged child molestation -- and more, since an incendiary audio tape of a conversation between Fine's accuser and Fine's wife aired -- Syracuse has become the new ground zero in a moving target of dishonor.

The news vans have relocated, driving from central Pennsylvania to central New York, now taking up spaces on Marshall Street instead of College Avenue.

But this, people in town are quick to tell you, is not Penn State.

Fine's alleged crime is no less heinous, but the reaction, at least for now, is nowhere near as nuclear.

"I don't know that it's anxiety so much as people just don't want this to be like Penn State," said Michael Cohen, a junior at SU and sports editor at The Daily Orange. "They want to wait and reserve judgment."

Reserved. That's probably the best word to describe Syracuse this week. Muted, even.

There were no protestors or students amassing on campus, no hastily staged news conferences -- or canceled ones, for that matter. Students shuffled to class or grabbed a bite to eat at Varsity Pizza. Save for a few television crews grabbing interviews, it was an ordinary weekday.

Similarly, the Orange's game against Eastern Michigan, a predictable 84-48 rout Tuesday night, was a basketball game, no more and no less.

Fans didn't wear special colors in support of victims of abuse, nor did the public address announcer ask for a moment of silence. The players played. The coaches coached, and the students spent the endgame cheering for the 75th point and subsequent free taco.

Aside from a prolonged standing ovation when Jim Boeheim took the court, this was business as usual, at least until the postgame.

There, a packed assemblage of print and television reporters greeted Boeheim. The coach initially read from a statement he said he prepared with a friend, but then surprisingly went off the cuff at length to answer questions. Typically defensive, Boeheim was more philosophical and conversational. At one point, when Pete Moore, the director of athletic communications, tried for the second time to insist that the news conference be limited to basketball-only questions, Boeheim even joked, "Give it up, Pete."

He was, however, adamant in his insistence that he had no knowledge of nor was he in any way complicit in covering up Fine's alleged actions.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliIt was not exactly a routine postgame news conference at the Carrier Dome on Tuesday night.

"I do my job," Boeheim said. "What happened on my watch, we will see. When the investigation is done, we'll find out what happened on my watch. Right now there are no charges, no indictment, no grand jury and no action has been taken. When that's done, we'll see what happened on my watch."

That, right now, is the burning question around these parts.

What, if anything, happened with his knowledge?

Boeheim is adored in Syracuse, a coaching legend who might not be viewed as the architect of the city quite like Joe Paterno is in State College, but one nonetheless universally revered.

Faith in the coach has not been greatly shaken, but people do want assurance that Boeheim knew nothing about Bobby Davis' initial accusations nine years ago.

"What will happen with Boeheim and what did he know? Those are the questions," SU senior Annabelle Hine said.

On Tuesday, Syracuse chancellor Nancy Cantor offered her vote of confidence. Following an unrelated meeting in Albany, Cantor said, "He is our coach," and while she didn't offer a qualifier for the future, most people around town seem to believe it will remain that way.

"I don't think Jim Boeheim should be fired, not if he didn't know about it," Syracuse sophomore Dylan Vitali said. "I think that's what most people believe right now. What he said [about the accusers] was wrong, but he was being emotional."

Indeed, most people in the city have forgiven Boeheim his initial attack, in which he labeled Davis a liar and worse, a man out merely for money. Fans argue exactly what Boeheim said in his postgame news conference Tuesday -- that he was supporting a friend.

But a few miles from campus, in a small building set amid other offices, at least one woman has a different opinion.

Randi Bregman has been working with victims of sexual abuse for 20 years. Now the executive director of Vera's House, an outreach and advocacy center, she listened to what Boeheim said initially and then read the statement he issued Sunday.

"The statement was a good first step, but if you're asking me personally, I don't think it's gone far enough," Bregman said. "The initial comments were with such force, and it was such a character attack. And it was visual. You could see his face and that anger and rage. The problem with the statement is it lacks that intensity. It doesn't drive the point home. It merely scratches the surface of the pain."

There is a strangely indifferent attitude to that pain, to the alleged victims in general.

Unlike at Penn State, where by the end of the week students were gathering by the thousands to hold candlelight vigils and alumni were spearheading a donation drive, Davis and the two other alleged victims have been largely ignored.

"Someone actually said to me at one point, who will coach our big men?" Bregman said. "Really? That's what we're worried about right now?"

The dispassionate interest in the alleged victims could be due to their age. All three are grown men now.

Yet it's also in keeping with the sort of universal reluctance to overreact here, as well as a sobering sense of disbelief.

A week ago, when the Fine allegations first surfaced, most people parroted their coach's initial reaction. They doubted the veracity of Davis' accusations, questioning both his motives and timing.

But following the Thanksgiving break, the campus' tone -- like Boeheim's -- has changed significantly. The existence of a tape of a conversation between Davis and Fine's wife, Laurie, in which Laurie Fine seems to say she knew what allegedly happened between her husband and Davis, has changed people's opinions.

Cohen estimated around 80 percent of the student population at first echoed the coach's initial reaction. Since the tape surfaced, Cohen said, "A good 90 percent of that original 80 percent believe [the alleged abuse] happened."

"I think at first people were like, it was all a little too convenient," said John Begley, a sophomore from Yardley, Pa., who was coming out from lunch at Varsity Pizza. "You've got his [step]brother, and with the timing of the Penn State stuff, it seemed a little sketchy. Now it's more like, 'OK, the tape changes things.'"

[+] EnlargeSyracuse
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliThere have been small protests here and there, but the mood around the SU campus and surrounding community has been fairly reserved so far.

Not that it's easy to process.

The chillingly casual conversation, in which Laurie Fine suggests her husband would have been better served finding a "gay boy," is almost incomprehensible to most people.

Annabelle Hine was on Marshall Street on Tuesday. Assigned a story for the Newhouse School of Public Communications on a rash of rapes at a nearby park, she was soliciting "on the street" interviews for her topic but finding it hard to get other interviews.

The Syracuse police, she said, wouldn't talk to her, convinced that the park story was a ruse to talk about Bernie Fine.

A Syracuse native who said she knows little about sports but has known who Boeheim is since she was 5, Hine said one of the hardest things to process in all of this is Laurie Fine.

"It's just so messed up," she said. "I can't imagine it at all, and then there are allegations that she had a relationship with [Davis], too? The Fine household is clearly not a hotbed of mental health."

Heather Minikhiem, a physician's assistant, sat on a curb eating her lunch, enjoying the unseasonably warm November day.

She's had an equally difficult time processing everything. She wants to have what she thinks is an important discussion with her 12-year-old daughter. At the same time, she is apprehensive, afraid to tarnish the reputation of a man who has not yet formally been found guilty of a crime.

She agrees the Laurie Fine tape is damning, yet she has questions about it.

"I mean, why use that tape now and not initially? And why give it to ESPN and not the police?" Minikhiem said. "I just don't know what to think. It's shocking. I know that. It's definitely shocking, but I'm still not sure what to believe or who to believe."

That really is the essence of the Syracuse sentiment these days: What to believe? Who to believe? And when to believe it?

People want answers, and there simply aren't any.

For now, that seems to be good enough.

For now, only the proselytizer is speaking with any real conviction.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

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