Sunday, January 31, 2016

Social Media / the Internet the Serial Killer of Coaches

Just starting to get up and around, so I thought I'd start of with a non- X and O column and what I think is a big problem today and growing,

Back in the early 2000's I wrote a couple of columns for a newspaper down in Virginia. The first one I did was entitled "Coaches face faceless scrutiny." Basically is was about the sudden growth of forums in which anonymous writers could post anything about a coach and not have to face up to examination for there actions. At that time forums were just begging to grow, not everybody had website or a Facebook page, and twitter was still eating pablum as the baby of social media. Since that time there has been a boon in this area. There are forums to voice you opinion on everything. Everybody has their own site or Facebook page claiming expertise and giving opinions on everything. Twitter, well you can't go anyplace without twitter slapping you in the face with some bit of info that either has no credence or is totally useless. (Really! Do I wanna see a selfie of somebody's new hairdo that I DON'T EVEN KNOW!) All of this is because of our basic needs to be wanted and to be special. (Where else can you declare yourself an expert without any experience.)

With this explosion comes a greater threat to coaches then ever before. Never in the history of coaching can  ONE PERSON do so much damage.  Never before can it be so sharp and quick. And never before can it be so harming to one's career. Winston Churchill once said that " a lie is half way around the world before the truth has a chance to be its pants on." If that was true in 1945, then today, with social media, a lie is to mars and back twice before the belt is buckled

In my original column I talked about Dick Tomey, then head coach at Arizona. When he resigned he stated that he had no choice. He couldn't change the opinion of his players as to what they increasingly heard on the websites. Therein lies problem number one: You can't disprove something that isn't true and is founded in rumor and myth. Courts don't let lawyers prove there wasn't any knife. The onus is to prove there was a knife. They can only prove or disprove the facts. People hiding behind false screen names take no accountable and therefore no investment into their statement. When naivety raises its head in the form of an uneducated reader, the opinion becomes fact and is spread as such. Soon you have a full fledge virus threatening the life of your career, all coming from one innocuous insect bite on some meaningless forum.

The second problem with this is boundaries. There are none. Paul Pasqualoni and George Deleone are good friends of mine. Very good friends. They are as classy and respectable people as I know. They will literally give you the shirt of there back. (And to this day have the best record and most bowl appearances and wins at Syracuse.) When they were at Syracuse, there was a group that didn't like them. I use to go on Syracuse.com's forum to read how the program was doing. I couldn't continue because of the vile remarks by these posters. You can have your opinion but attacking the man and his family is just.... off limits. Once when Paul's father died, a calmer mind stepped in asked for a down time to respect Paul as a person. That only served as ammunition. Comments like "#@*# Paul's Dad,"  "Maybe he and George will die next." and "I hope his whole #*%$ing family dies then maybe he'll leave." And these were the ones I could print! I truly believe that Paul and George's dismissal from Syracuse was one of the very first social media death tolls.

The bigger point is that as I traveled and moved ,I talked to people about Paul and George. Fought with people who had heard comments about them from the internet that were nowhere close to the people they are. I knew them very well yet the voice of some hideous hiding wart of a man was taken as fact over my word.

There is a saying "A lie left unanswered becomes the truth." Problem is with the internet you can never answer and convince everybody who has read the comments. (remember the old line "you never get a second chance  at a first impression." Well to many people out there these comments are their first impressions of you. This is all they know about you. You are a name in the sports page till they read the forums.)

To illustrate this take a famous sex harassment case in the nineties brought on a teacher in Maryland by three students. Criminal charges were pressed. The teacher were persecuted in the papers. Given no chance of winning. He was built up to be the worst person on earth since satan offered the apple. Due to the vigilance of one police officer who fought through reprimands for being too tough on the kids, the case finally broke. It was a Hoax. The kids claimed this because of receiving bad grades. Now here's the catch. Once vindicated the teacher, who said all he ever wanted to do was teach, said he was giving up teaching. Not because he didn't want to but because of the millions that read the initial articles there were those out there that would look at him with suspicion. There were those out there who read all the beginning accounts but did not read the the final acquittal.There are those out there left with doubt.

The same is true on the internet. Some no name who doesn't even know you puts out a falsehood. Doesn't have to back up his info. Yet even though you dispel these through your actions in your program, there are thousands who didn't get the good guy memo.

Finally, people use to say "you can't argue with an idiot." It's even harder to argue with an anonymous idiot. I left a job one time and rumors swirled. (Every one ludicrous! One harder to believe then the last.) I'm old fashion. I didn't air my laundry. I actually left because they wanted me to fire good adjunct assistants and hire the guys inside who I already fired and didn't even show for meetings or practice. Anyway I got killed on the forums ( I found out who many of the writers were through their slips in messages and saw them often in town. Boy, face to face they'd smile and act like my friend.) Anyway, one of my assistants got disgusted and got on the board to tell the truth. It only served as gas on the fire. Many accused him of being me. Yeah right - I was on to my next job. Even with an assistant telling them the truth more people rallied to the anonymous poster.

Why are these posters even worth the ink on this paper. Think of this. A friend of mine left a job and even with his stellar record had trouble getting another one. After one interview, an administrator asked if he saw a certain forum that the interviewing parents brought it up after searching his name.  When he looked he was amazed - post after post degrading him as the scum of the earth. All with different names. He continued to monitor the site because when he called, the moderator told him there was nothing he could do. To his surprise about a month later a poster noted that a certain other poster was banned because he was posting under multiple pen names. All these post disappeared but the damage had been done by one poster.

I've heard it said that the internet is new wild west with all the unlawlessness and all the possible good tied together. In coaching it's certainly true but I'm beginning to see the bad outweigh the good. Sites from "Coaches on the Hot Seat" to "Fire Paul Johnson" and the thousands more are springing up, giving voice to people who have no clue. (I wonder if that person would be upset if we started a sight "Fire Joe the Plummer.") With people's basic need to be a part of something bigger they join these sites with really no interest in the person, program, or outcome. (Come on, do you think the 875000 on Facebook are really your friends and care about your causes.) Twitter gives even quicker access. On an account that post score updates a person posted "this guy has got to go. All my buddies join in" Well by the end of the night his entire class had a reunion at the coaches expense.

The main problem lies in the anonymity of the author. He hides like some common thief in the darkness.  (I once asked a moderator why they don't make poster use their real name or email. His answer - nobody would post and we would lose our sponsors! Money!) Just this week I was offered an interview, On a local forum my name came up. A poster who I don't know and wasn't even around when I was at Truman preceded to kill me. All false - even my record. But its there.

Some posters are just nasty people, some look for a bond, a group to put their shoes under the bed with, and some have an agenda. They may be former players who didn't play enough or their parents. They may be somebody who wants the job. (I've actually seen a coach have somebody post about his job competition on a forum. Afterwards he was even proud and boasting what he did.) Whatever it is they have a cherry to pick and if means chopping down the tree - you - to get it they will.

It's not going away and will probably get worse. So I advise coaches to do the following to help themselves.

1. google yourself often. You'd be amazed what you'd find. Especially if you are going for a job. In can assure you that the parents at the new school are.

2. Monitor your local forum. I knew a coach who assigned this to an assistant and once known by all he never had a bad post. Believe me your players are reading them do this. Because posters are not brave to begin with, if they know you monitor sites, they usually won't post for fear you'll figure it out.

3. If something is particularly nasty or defamatory send it to the moderator (there is usually a link on the post page) Many are starting to take it off if it's harmful. (Not the "he sucks as a coach") There have been lawsuits against forum owners

4. If you really really want to get the name - hire a PI. A coach I just coached against did this. There is a way / process  to do this

5. Talk to your players parents about these sites. Let them know your thoughts

When I wrote my newspaper article the social media was in its infancy. It has boomed now as have the problems with it. Be proactive or you might become the next Dick Toomey.


PS I don't allow cellphones or camera film either at practice. They can be doctored and cut to fit. There's a halftime talk by a PA hall of fame coach on the internet. Nothing bad but he does come across as crazy. He hasn't been a head coach since.