While Syracuse's Jim Boeheim continues to adamantly defend longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine of molestation allegations, the University's other team of public relations professionals must be behind closed doors, cringing.
One of the main tenets of Syracuse's own S.I. Newhouse School of Communications promises "learning the principles and processes behind effective communications management." Ironic that while current students in this program plow through the end of a semester, Boeheim jumps too quickly to publicly respond to Fine's accusers. He thinks alleged abuse victims are lying, and he may be right, but that's hardly "effective communications management." After all, if the accusations are true, the next crisis is dealing with a legendary coach who put his reputation -- and his school's -- on the credibility of an assistant. And his statement only buttresses the argument of those who feel the problem at major universities is that ivory tower has no idea what the head whistle is doing.
According to Anti-Defamation League website, "Crisis management is the art of making decisions to head off or mitigate the effects of such an event, often while the event itself is unfolding. This often means making decisions about your institution’s future while you are under stress and while you lack key pieces of information."
That's what Chancellor Nancy Cantor tried to do in a letter to alumni, writing of the University’s desire to launch a thorough investigation without rushing to judgement.
At the same time, Coach Boeheim said, "You think anybody tells me when to speak or not?" Even more recently as this weekend, after his team's 92-47 win over Colgate at the Carrier Dome, Boeheim said: "I'm not going to say anything new. So I'll just repeat: I've been friends for 50 years with Coach Fine. That buys a lot of loyalty from me and should."
As Bernie Fine's friend, Boeheim’s reaction is endearing. But in his 36th season as the head basketball coach at the school that prides itself on learning the proper ways of handling crises, what has he learned?
In the November 19 edition of the New York Times, Newhouse’s own chairwoman of the public relations department, Brenda Wrigley, said she is not speaking on behalf of the university, yet still critiques her own
employer: "If Syracuse wants to conduct an internal investigation," she said, "that's fine. But from a perception perspective, there needs to be an independent entity doing an investigation. Because the perception otherwise will be, we investigated ourselves -- wink, wink -- and you can be assured that everything is perfectly fine."
So much for a unified response.
The problem, in essence, is this: Coach Boeheim asks us not to make parallels to Penn State, yet his immediate reaction shows a pattern of the old-boy mentality of Division I sports that may have sped the demise of legacy head football coaches like Joe Paterno. Whether or not the most recent allegations are unfounded, Syracuse now must now not only uncover the truth of the allegations but must also now internally address Coach Boeheim's rookie move.
No matter what Syracuse has made its academic reputation on, it's national reputation is based on basketball. And everyone, including Boeheim, seems to know it.
Sara Koch is a 1996 graduate of Syracuse University's SI Newhouse School, where she received a BS in Public Relations.
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