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Internet becoming raw sounding board for schools

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Saturday, August 28, 2010, at 12:03 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, August 28, 2010, at 4:20 a.m.

Emotional times sometimes call for emotional responses, and that was quite a doozy from Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne earlier this summer.

Big 12 existence was pushed to the edge. Texas A&M's interests were being tugged in different directions. Big 12, SEC, Pac-10? Fans' opinions came strong. Too strong, finally, for Byrne.

After reading what he described as 200 angry e-mails, the one that opened with an expletive and closed with a vulgarity popped Byrne's cork. He telephoned the messenger and left an angry voicemail: "Someone who has no guts to write something like that ought to have his (behind) kicked," Byrne said.

We know that's what Byrne said because the voicemail was posted on YouTube.

A war of words between a fan and an administrator going viral was unusual — as Byrne's open-letter apology to A&M fans attests — but sports anger expressed through cyberspace was not.

Keyboard venom can be just as harsh as anything expressed through the larynx, and this way nobody goes hoarse. What's more, universities are paying closer attention to the online venting.

"More than we used to," Missouri athletic director Mike Alden said. "We monitor chat rooms, message boards, websites, because the reality is those are your customers."

Why give the ranting virtual public its due?

With a few clicks, schools and teams can get a quick pulse of their fan base, in bad times and good. Water-cooler talk has become the virtual watering hole. Nothing grows threads like subject lines to fire a coach or change a quarterback.

Or, earlier in the summer, the Big 12's near-death experience. As news broke daily — even hourly — fans poured onto websites and message boards for updates on Colorado's move to the Pac-10, Nebraska's shift to the Big Ten and speculation of other schools bolting for other leagues or scrambling for their lives.

Chip Brown, a reporter for the Rivals.com website that covers Texas, Orangebloods.com, knows people who were calling the shots in this rapidly moving story — or were close enough to those who were — were paying attention. They had become his sources.

"We started with three or four sources and ended with about 13 who were really in the know, basically trading information," Brown said. "I think as the story went on there was a growing comfort level with what we were doing."

That comfort level is what's different today. Not long ago, schools or teams would give short shrift to most anything transmitted through cyberspace.

Not anymore. Schools want to know all types of cyber-info, from student-athletes' Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, to messages boards in fan-based or popular-media sites.

"It would be naive of us not to know what people are thinking," Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. "At the same time, it's vitally important to have the filters in place to help keep things in a proper perspective."

*

Anonymity helps explain the boldness of a sports fan's online venting, said Christian End, a psychology professor at Xavier University who studies fan behavior.

Words that might lead to haymakers in person come off as a jab-and-duck online.

"This type of communication affords a person some protection," End said. "An e-mail has a return address but doesn't have to be signed. A message might have a little photo in the corner, but it doesn't have to be yours and it's not a case where somebody has to leave a home number."

But to End, online sports griping is a little different from, say, consumer rants. If a customer is angry about a product or service, there are popular sites such as Consumer Reports.

There, customers can log specific complaints and share war stories with others who feel slighted. End, who wrote his master's thesis on NFL fan message boards, often found a different sense in cyberspace among fans of a team.

"I expected to find more 'you suck' kinds of messages" toward an owner or coach, End said. "But what struck me was how many messages were simply information sharing."

When a team was doing poorly, End discovered a difference in response from the same fan depending on the setting: watching a game with a group of friends vs. the personal connection with a laptop.

In a group, End found that a fan will tend to blame others for his team's poor performance, the officials or the conditions.

"If he doesn't, his friends will look at him and say, 'Where's your loyalty?' " End said.

But in the privacy and usual anonymity of a home keyboard, End found that a fan will deliver a more honest assessment.

"The message board allows a fan to admit his team isn't as perfect as he thought," End said. "You don't want to say this in a group, but on the Internet you can be more honest and you're more prone to hold your team accountable."

*

To OU's Castiglione, the proliferation of outlets that cater to fan interest proves the maxim that a little knowledge can be a dangerous — and sometimes mean-spirited — thing.

"The problem is, in many instances, the information reported on blogs or passed along on message boards isn't accurate," Castiglione said. "You get bits and pieces of fact. People react to that."

Some of the most repeated stories during the Big Ten expansion/Big 12 implosion saga started outside of traditional media outlets and gained legs and fury on message boards. Missouri to the Big Ten; Pittsburgh and Rutgers to the Big Ten; six Big 12 schools to the Pac-10. Castiglione saw partial or bad information lead to hard feelings among fan bases.

"None of it was true," Castiglione said. "The public was feeding off each other, and it led to a lot of bad feelings and perceptions that were based on fiction."

Still, schools had to respond. When Nebraska believed it had been cast in a villain's role by ending its Big 12 membership, athletic director Tom Osborne shot back. One or two schools leaving doesn't break up a conference, he said. Six schools leaving does, a reference to a report that Texas would lead a brigade of mostly Big 12 South schools into the Pac-10.

"The sad part to me was when we did have an opportunity to meet with the media and tell them what was going on, they wouldn't believe it," Castiglione said. "The wrong stories were much more interesting."

That's why Byrne not only issued an apology in his message to Aggies fans but also responded to several rumors ("Statement Eight: A&M got played") that gained life on message boards.

And if a vulgarity sullies a voicemail or e-mail, Byrne likely will take a different approach. He'll hit "delete."

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