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Opining on Syracuse football, Bills’ bungling of rape investigation       

Victory-famished sports fans often plummet from feeling angry to apathetic. And that can be problematic because at least angry fans care enough to remain financially and emotionally invested in their teams. They still attend games, still buy merchandise and concessions, still root, root, root for the ol’ home team. Apathetic fans just stop going. Period. They opt to spend their cash, time and emotions elsewhere.

I think apathetic is where many Syracuse University football fans are at this point, and I can’t say as I blame them because the Orange men have mustered just one winning season in the past eight years and just four in the past 17 years. That ignominious stretch has seen them suffer through three 10-loss seasons and two nine-loss seasons. Other than their 10-win campaign and No. 15th final ranking four years ago, they’ve been nationally irrelevant. And irrelevant in their own backyard for that matter.

Syracuse kicks off its 2022 schedule Saturday night against Louisville at the newly named (it’s going to take time getting used to writing this) JMA Wireless Dome. With a ledger featuring games against two top-five opponents and four top-20 foes, it’s not exactly man-bites-dog news that the Vegas oddsmakers are forecasting another losing record.

That would make six losing seasons in seven tries for Coach Dino Babers – more than enough to call for his firing. But, in reality, Babers appears safe despite his abysmal 29-43 record because, according to reports from respected ESPN college football insider Pete Thamel, the affable Babers has a $10-million buyout clause after this season. Although that’s pocket change to football factories like Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Penn State and Ohio State, it’s significant money for a medium-sized private university like Syracuse that historically doesn’t buy out coaches’ contracts. So, unless Babers turns in another 1-10 season like he did in 2020, he probably remains.

Winning is the only remedy that can rouse apathetic Orange fans to care enough to plant their fannies back on those uncomfortable aluminum bench seats in the Dome. And, if you look really hard, you’ll find reasons to believe that maybe this Syracuse team can defy the odds.

Adding respected offensive coordinator Robert Anae, quarterbacks coach Jason Beck, and special teams coach Bob Ligashesky vastly upgraded Babers’ staff. Anae and Beck have a successful track record developing dual-threat quarterbacks. Ligashesky coached 16 years in the NFL and should improve a disorganized special teams unit that cost SU several games in recent years.

Syracuse returns 17 starters. Most prominent among them is Sean Tucker, who is coming off a single-season school rushing record and may be the best running back in America. The Orange features an experienced, albeit occasionally brittle offensive line, and NFL prospects in the linebacking corps and secondary.

As is usually the case, the team’s fortunes will come down to quarterback. Garrett Shrader showed his athleticism and grit last year, rushing for 781 yards and 14 touchdowns. At 6-foot-4, 228 pounds, with speed to burn, he is a home run running threat every play. Unfortunately, Shrader’s throwing (he completed only 52.6 percent of his passes) sank SU last fall, as opponents bunched defenders close to the line-of-scrimmage to stop the run because they didn’t respect the junior QB’s arm. If Anae and Beck can turn Shrader into an effective passer, Syracuse will have a chance to be dynamic offensively, and pull off some upsets. Should Shrader falter early in the season, look for Babers to switch to transfer Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, who was a four-star recruit in high school.

We’ll see if the apathetic can be coaxed into caring again. For now, though, many Orange fans remain in a show-me state. And we’re not talking Missouri.

***

Much has happened since the story broke last Thursday that Buffalo Bills  punter Matt Araiza and two of his former San Diego State football teammates were being sued for allegedly gang-raping a then-17-year-old girl last October. The disturbing story was news to most, but not to the Bills, who had been notified by the girl’s attorney, Dan Gilleon, in late July. Bills assistant general counsel Kathryn D’Angelo reportedly chatted at length on the phone with “Jane Doe’s” lawyer. The team, then, according to Bills general manager Brandon Beane conducted a “thorough examination,” but questions have arisen about just how “thorough” it truly was. Beane, head coach Sean McDermott and D’Angelo immediately spoke to Araiza, who denied the charges. The Bills braintrust did not follow up with Gilleon and, incredibly, did not request to interview the victim. Instead, they took the word of a 22-year-old rookie who hadn’t been forthcoming about the matter during pre-draft interviews with the team.

Despite warnings of the impending civil suit, the Bills cut veteran Matt Haack and named Araiza the starting punter. Making matters worse, McDermott went on a national podcast and said Araiza was a “great kid.”

It was only after widespread public backlash by angry Bills fans that the team decided to cut Araiza last Saturday. Meanwhile, the San Diego County district attorney continues its criminal investigation. Araiza’s attorney and parents have described the civil suit as a “money grab.” And the victim recently did an interview with CBS News recounting what transpired that harrowing night eleven months ago.

After being backed into a corner, the Bills did the right thing in releasing Araiza. Yes, this was a difficult, highly sensitive matter, and, yes, it’s important to follow due process. In a court of law, you are innocent until proven guilty and Araiza and his two teammates will wind up having their say in a hall of justice if this goes to trial.

In the meantime, I suspect Beane, McDermott and Bills’ ownership will conduct a thorough examination of how they botched this situation so something similar doesn’t happen again.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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