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Crisis PR experts say Jim Boeheim erred in defending Bernie Fine

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Had Jim Boeheim responded to the molestation allegations against assistant Bernie Fine by pledging to support the investigation and expressing sympathy for alleged victims, crisis management experts suggest his seat wouldn't be quite so warm right now.

Instead, Boeheim went on the attack by vehemently defending his longtime friend and even calling Fine's accuser a liar and an extortionist, a decision that some believe should put the Syracuse coach's job and his legacy in jeopardy.

"That's where he made a mistake," said Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR. "That's a fork in the road in the moment. That's the tipping point that could have made people say, 'Wow, they handled things totally different than Penn State,' and instead he did just the opposite. He followed in their footsteps."

The initial comments from Boeheim came in the 24 hours after ESPN reported Nov. 17 that Fine allegedly molested a pair of former Syracuse ball boys everywhere from Fine's home to the basketball facilities at Syracuse to hotel rooms before road games. Boeheim chose the boldest possible course of action, accusing alleged victim Bobby Davis of "lying," questioning ESPN's decision to run the story and telling the Syracuse Post-Standard Davis was "trying to get money."

In the wake of a third alleged victim surfacing Sunday and the release of a tape-recorded call in which Fine's wife appears to implicate her husband, Boeheim has altered his stance. In a statement released Sunday evening, he conceded the university took "the appropriate step" by firing Fine earlier in the day.

"What is most important is that this matter be fully investigated and that anyone with information be supported to come forward so that the truth can be found," Boeheim said. "I deeply regret any statements I made that might have inhibited that from occurring or been insensitive to victims of abuse."{YSP:MORE}

Crisis management experts applauded the transparency and contrition Boeheim showed in his latest statement but questioned whether it came too late.

"It's pretty difficult for him to say anything that's going to placate the public and correct what he's already said," said University of Arkansas professor Stephen Dittmore, author of the book "Sport public relations: Managing organizational communication."

"Anytime you get a crisis that involves things society would find morally inappropriate, you need to show empathy and compassion. Even if you don't agree with the allegations, you have to show some compassion to the human element that's involved there. I think coach Boeheim probably did himself a disservice by reacting so strongly initially. He should have taken a very neutral approach."

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