Proceed carefully in Syracuse situation
In a tidy, upscale village 10 miles east of Syracuse University, a dozen or so vans, cars and satellite trucks were parked outside Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine’s house on Friday. The sun was now setting, cameramen waiting in the chill since morning, on the street between Fine’s house and the sprawling house of head coach Jim Boeheim just across the way.
Those cameramen were waiting for the answer on all of our minds: Was it true? Did Fine, who has been an assistant under Boeheim for 35 years, really molest two of the team’s ball boys starting in the 1970s and ending in the 1990s, as a Thursday report on ESPN alleged? Will another legendary coach at a big-time college program be brought down by allegations of sexual abuse, as we sit barely a week removed from the stomach-turning charges against Jerry Sandusky bringing down Joe Paterno at Penn State?
Is the nightmare happening all over again?
Inside Fine’s house, the lights were off. A sign next to the front door read, “Welcome all who enter here.” A woman drove up and scurried inside, but only a yapping white dog answered the door. A lonely basketball hoop stood in the driveway. The family seemed ready for the holidays: a dozen pumpkins decorating the front yard, a Christmas wreath hanging above the porch. Earlier in the day, Boeheim had come by and told the congregated media, “Don’t waste your time. He’s not here.”
No, there would be no definite answers, not today, not any time soon, in the case against Fine.
Right now, only one thing is clear: Syracuse is not Penn State.
Sure, given the two weeks of disgust that’s seeped out of Penn State in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, it’s natural to equate the two. Sexual abuse allegations that span more than a decade? Leveled against an assistant coach at a national championship-winning college sports program? At a university where the head coach is an icon?
It’s a gut reaction.
And it may be the wrong reaction.
With the Sandusky case, we had an 18-month investigation that ended in a grand jury indictment. We had a 23-page grand jury report that provided vivid, corroborative details for various sexual abuse allegations by Sandusky against eight alleged victims. We had a case cut-and-dry enough to end the Penn State tenure of the longtime football head coach Paterno and university president Graham Spanier.
This is not what we have at Syracuse. What we have here is a whole lot of grays, a murky stew of facts and falsehoods that we’re only beginning to digest. In the end, it will either be another horrific instance of a college coach taking sexual advantage of star-struck young boys, or two men committing a vengeful, lie-filled character assassination on the currently longest-serving assistant coach in NCAA basketball.
Either outcome will sicken us.
But unlike the Sandusky case, this is not the end of a long, thorough investigative process. And what we need to do — difficult as it may sound — is take a deep breath, avoid jumping to conclusions, and wait for the police investigation, still in its earliest stages, to be completed.
Here are the allegations: A 39-year-old local man, Bobby Davis, told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that Fine began molesting him in seventh grade when Davis was a ball boy for the Syracuse Orange, and continued until Davis was 26. Davis’ stepbrother, Mike Lang, also told ESPN that he’d been a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of Fine on more than a dozen occasions. Davis said he went to the local police in 2003, but they told him the statute of limitations had passed.
But remember: The local paper as well as ESPN had investigated Davis’ claims nearly a decade ago. Neither published a thing because no corroboration could be found. The university conducted a four-month investigation of its own after hearing the allegations in 2005, but nobody interviewed in the investigation supported Davis’ claims. And, as callers on Syracuse talk radio pointed out again and again on Friday, Davis’ story seemed flimsy and seemed to change, his demeanor in the ESPN interview seemed shifty and his timing seemed suspicious. In Boeheim’s words: “I believe they saw what happened at Penn State and they are using ESPN to get money."
It’s all part of this brave new world of instant media. More facts or half-facts or falsehoods keep coming at us. We digest every piece of information as it comes, not knowing which is true but drawing conclusions nevertheless.
“These are the conversations that used to just happen in newsrooms,” said Steve Davis, chair of the newspaper and online journalism program at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. “We’d sit around and talk about what we think happened, and then every 24 hours we’d write a story or do a news report. Now what we experience is the real-time version of that. . . . This is an occasion that calls not for speed but actually for deliberateness. That deliberative part of our business, it’s hard to account for that anymore.”
Whether he’s guilty as hell or an innocent bystander in a whirlwind of lies, Bernie Fine is being tried in the court of public opinion. If he’s guilty, he’s deserving of every ounce of vitriol being directed toward him. If he’s innocent — and really, truly, right now we have no way of knowing one way or the other — he’ll still be stained for life by these accusations.
Though he wasn’t about to throw himself into the gaggle of media outside his house Friday, Fine — who has been placed on administrative leave during the police investigation — did release a strongly worded statement on Friday.
"Sadly, we live in an allegation-based society and an Internet age where in a matter of minutes one’s lifelong reputation can be severely damaged," Fine said in the statement released through an attorney. "I am confident that, as in the past, a review of these allegations will be discredited and restore my reputation. I hope the latest review of these allegations will be conducted expeditiously."
"Finally, I appreciate [chancellor Nancy Cantor’s] statement that I should be accorded a fair opportunity to defend myself against these accusations. I fully intend to do so. There should never be a rush to judgment when someone’s personal integrity and career are on the line."
In the studio of a Syracuse sports radio station, Brent Axe, a Syracuse lifer who hosts an afternoon sports talk show, took a sip of his soda and urged the emotional Orange of central New York to proceed with caution. Usually, his show is “the sandbox,” the place where people can argue about things that really don’t matter, like whether Tim Tebow’s win against the Jets means he’s really an NFL quarterback.
But on Friday, all four hours of his show were consumed by the sexual-abuse allegations. Friends of Fine called in to support the assistant coach, and so did parents whose children had gone to his basketball camps. A retired teacher called in, saying that even if Fine didn’t commit these crimes, he should have known better than putting himself in situations alone with a child.
Axe took on an interesting tone for a sports radio show, one that national radio hosts like Jim Rome and Scott Van Pelt had as well when discussing the Bernie Fine case: A tone of holding back, of reserving judgment before we know all the facts. Axe said Syracuse faithful have taken a lesson from the Penn State fiasco, trying to ensure emotion doesn’t override rationality.
We want “to get to the truth, to get to the right answer, to get to the point where we know how to feel about this,” Axe told his listeners. “Because right now we don’t. You want to pick a side, you want to say they’re right and they’re wrong, but you really don’t know at this point. And that’s frustrating, because we want answers. We want to know what’s going on. But . . . there are going to be some answers we don’t get for a very long time.”
One person who didn’t hold back on his emotions was Boeheim.
“It is a bunch of a thousand lies that he has told,” Boeheim said to ESPN. “You don’t think it is a little funny that his [stepbrother] is coming forward? There is only one side to this story. He is lying.”
Boeheim’s response was strong. The coach came out guns blazing, his loyalty firmly on the side of Fine, his longtime assistant and neighbor.
Of course, what do we really know about other people, no matter how close we are to them? When Boeheim says there’s “absolutely no way” the abuse could have happened, how can he really know? Isn’t the first reaction of the next-door neighbors of a crazed murderer always that they were shocked such a nice young man could do such a horrible thing?
In throwing his full-throated support behind Fine, Boeheim either showed the ultimate loyalty during the most difficult time in his assistant coach’s life — or he put his own job on the line if these allegations turn out to be true.
These are our natural, human, emotional reactions, when such horrific allegations strike close to home — in Boeheim’s case, right across the street.
In the coaches’ neighborhood, the sun had set. A woman answered the door of her house not far from Fine’s. Several young children ran around the house, clutching at their mother’s leg then scooting away. The woman didn’t want to give her name — people know her family in town, she said — but she said she felt emotionally involved in the case. She knows Fine. She doesn’t think he committed these crimes. She sure hopes he didn’t.
“I was immediately questioning the person that brought forth the allegations, because it had already been investigated,” she said. “The timing of it all seems like it was trying to piggyback what’s going on at Penn State. That’s what it seems like to me. There’s a lot of witch-hunting going on, it seems like, in today’s society.”
Between all these gray lines — did he, or didn’t he? — there is only one truth: Right now, we just don’t know. We may never know. Try as we may to take our emotions out of play, we can’t, especially with such serious, disgusting allegations. We can only hope that time and deliberation will bring out the truth. That was the last thing this woman, Fine’s neighbor, said: “I just hope everything is done in an unbiased and thorough manner.”
She closed the door. It was nearly dark, but a yellow sign in the woman’s front yard was still visible: “SLOW. Children at play.”
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at email@example.com.