A “Fine” PR Mess for Syracuse

Another month, another college sports scandal allegedly involving a respected coach. This scenario is (unfortunately) too familiar now. An assistant coach from a prominent athletic department is accused of molesting young boys.

The latest scandal involves the Syracuse University men’s basketball team and it’s associate basketball coach, Bernie Fine. A longtime coach under hall of fame head coach Jim Boeheim, Fine is being accused by two former university ball boys. They say they were molested by Fine starting in the late 1970s and continuing into the 1990s.

The accusers, Mike Lang and Bobby Davis, told the ESPN program “Outside the Lines” about the incidents. Syracuse, N.Y. police are investigating, which is something they did not do back in 2002. The recent allegations have caused the Syracuse police department to issue a statement as to why nothing was done in the past. The Onondaga County district attorney’s office now has the information relating to the Syracuse police department’s sexual abuse investigation.

So why are we at PRBC once again focusing on a college athletics sex abuse scandal? Because there are issues from a public relations standpoint that deserve to be highlighted. As I wrote at the height of the Penn State debacle, openness and transparency are important. However, colleges and universities also need to make sure they are careful in what they say.

Case in point: Syracuse made the proactive move to place Fine on “administrative leave” on Nov. 17.  The university did the right thing from a PR standpoint here, something Penn State fumbled horribly on. This doesn’t mean, though, that Syracuse is in the clear though.

Coach Boeheim issued a statement after Fine was placed on leave, saying, “…I have never seen or witnessed anything to suggest that he would been involved in any of the activities alleged. Had I seen or suspected anything, I would have taken action. Bernie has my full support.”

Boeheim also talked to ESPN, telling the network: “I know (one of the accusers), but I never saw him in any rooms or anything. It is a bunch of a thousand lies that he has told. You don’t think it is a little funny that his cousin (relative) is coming forward?” On Sunday, Fine was fired by Syracuse.

I understand Boeheim was supporting his long time friend, but his statement should have been tempered. A lesson could have been learned from what Penn State’s president did during the onset of it’s own scandal. Now, in the wake of Fine’s firing, Boeheim is under fire. On Tuesday, Syracuse’s chancellor gave her support to the basketball coach.

The bottom line is that despite the chancellor’s support, Boeheim initial comments have hurt him in the court of public opinion. From a PR perspective, the coach best not make any further comments. Otherwise, no form of PR, hall of famer or not, will help Boeheim or the university.

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