Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian

Terrible, unavoidable tragedy can strike anytime, and occur to anyone. Most realize this. So, from a public relations perspective, grace and empathy are required when a person finds themselves in a situation outside their control. But that doesn’t mean you can afford not to make a statement, or that you should allow other opinion makers to define your story.

When tragedy strikes, especially if you feel you’re innocent of wrongdoing, you need to get out in front of the story. Case in point: the situation in which longtime Syracuse University men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim now finds himself. Boeheim on Feb. 20 struck and killed a pedestrian, Jorge Jimenez, who was allegedly walking on the interstate, and that terrible accident has since raised a lot of questions.

According to media reports, Jimenez’s vehicle was disabled, and Boeheim swerved around the vehicle to avoid crashing into it. When he did this, he struck Jimenez, who was either walking or standing on the side of the road.

When the media learned one of the most venerated active coaches in college hoops was involved in the incident, stories proliferated. Boeheim, still dealing with his own feelings about the tragedy, marshaled his thoughts and released a postgame statement on Saturday that read, in part:

“First and foremost, to the Jimenez family, I want them to know how truly devastated I am for my involvement in the loss of their loved one, Jorge Jimenez,” Boeheim said. “The grief and pain his family is feeling at this time is, simply put, unimaginable. Juli, my family and I are heartbroken. I love this community, and to see so many of my fellow community members rally around the Jimenez family is a reminder of how special central New York is.”

Sports Illustrated reported that Syracuse held a moment of silence for Jimenez before the Saturday game.

According to Syracuse police, the 74-year-old coach responded properly. Police attest that Boeheim “stopped immediately and exited (his) vehicle …” Police also said that both Boeheim and the driver of the other vehicle tested negative for any signs of impaired driving. Friends have been quick to point out that Boeheim doesn’t drink.

So, if the facts hold as they’re currently being reported, we have a terrible tragedy that could happen to anyone on the highway. That doesn’t mean the issue will go away on its own, and it doesn’t mean Boeheim and Syracuse can avoid continued scrutiny and media attention. The press is already interviewing the victim’s family, who are painting the picture of a “happy, sociable” man who will be deeply missed.

Another wrinkle: the night of the accident, Syracuse had knocked off a top-ranked opponent, and NCAA March Madness is right around the corner. That means college basketball is currently getting a lot of media attention, so this story will come up many times when Syracuse is discussed for the remainder of the season.

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Ronn Torossian is CEO of leading PR firm 5WPR.