Social media plays an increasing role in high school sports -- Gazette.Net







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This story was corrected at 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 17, 2014. An explanation follows the story.

Around 11 a.m. on an otherwise average Wednesday morning at Thomas S. Wootton High School (@WoottonSports, 220 followers), Patriot football coach Tyree Spinner (@TyreeSpinner, 243 followers) and his assistant coaches were dismissed.

The cyberspace feuding began soon after.

Upon hearing the news, one student said he arrived home around 2:30 p.m. and the first thing he did was create a Twitter account, @getspinnerback (195 followers), which has since launched a sea of discussion in the Montgomery County Twitter-sphere.

Social media has been used for all manner of things in myriad fields: public relations, news gathering and reporting, organizational efforts, trash talk, and publishing whatever is on one’s mind — anything under the sun. It can be a tremendous resource or entirely worthless, both trouble-causing and problem-solving.

The latter was the intent for the student behind the @getspinnerback account, who asked to remain anonymous in an interview.

“I think it can have a pretty big impact because The Gazette (@Mont_Sports, 1,413 followers) has already talked about us and more people followed,” he said. “And if someone else writes about us, then more people will notice us and the word will get out and maybe Dr. [and principal, Michael] Doran will think about it.”

Wootton officials held a meeting at the school on Feb. 6 to respond to concerns in the community about the dismissal of Spinner and his staff.

Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and all other forms of social media give athletes, coaches, opponents, and students an unchecked, unfiltered voice behind the safety of a computer screen.

“Faceless Internet weasels” is how Quince Orchard football coach Dave Mencarini (@UCoach_Mac, 1,452 followers) put it.

Coaches and athletic directors can interact with the community at large, players with county peers, team accounts with other team accounts. The @getspinnerback account was created predominantly with positive intentions for the coach. That’s not to say, however, that social media can’t backfire. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly rare when it doesn’t.

Colleges and high schools have suspended players for derogatory tweets. Professional athletes have been fined. It’s become increasingly difficult for social-media users to straddle the line between First Amendment rights and when it simply goes too far to publish an item on a forum where one screen-shot can preserve it for eternity.

“The big thing that you really got to do, especially for a young coach like Spinner, is to stay away from it,” founder Mike Cornejo (@MikeCornejo, 1,624 followers) said. “It’s very tempting to post something on a message board like MoCo Football and fire back. In a broader sense, it’s the same thing [as Twitter], but … you’re not limited to 140 characters.”

It’s not all negative, though. Students and athletic departments have found productive uses for social media as well, though it’s oftentimes the inflammatory comments that attract the most attention.

Those with student section twitter accounts, such as Quince Orchard’s Red Army (@RedArmy2013, 413 followers), use it to get out the message for a certain theme for that week’s game, what color to wear, etc. Athletic directors, principals, and higher-ups have discovered successful ways to organize fundraisers and events, or announce schedule changes or weather postponements.

James H. Blake Athletic Director Jared Fribush (@BlakeAthletics, 807 followers) said he uses it mainly to promote games and provide live scoring updates and check scores from around the county. Seneca Valley Athletic Director Jesse Irvin (@SVHSathletics, 406 followers) has a policy that every single athletic event will have a score tweeted out within two hours of conclusion.

“It is great to get out information to them quickly,” said Irvin, who set up the department’s Twitter and Facebook accounts when he took the job in 2011. “I have also used it to garner fan interest by holding Twitter contests, such as tweeting a picture of the student athlete at a game in school colors, showing their school pride.”

Though he emphasizes caution, Fribush leaves any social media restrictions up to each individual coach, adding that it’s not necessarily their responsibility to monitor Twitter or Facebook. To his knowledge, he has yet to see an incident involving any Blake athletes.

Seneca, meanwhile, has devised a specific social media policy where “inappropriate comments/pictures/descriptions regarding another person’s race, ethnic background, culture, religion, gender, or sexual orientation” can result in suspension or dismissal from the team entirely.

Mencarini views Twitter and the message boards as “an unbelievable resource,” though he recognized the wealth of drawbacks that go hand-in-hand.

“It’s a great opportunity for me as a coach to promote all the good things we’re doing …. You find out more about what’s going on in the world in sports, news, whatever, on Twitter before you have to even get on the Internet.”

As most any coach has at this point, Mencarini, who makes a point of following his players on Twitter, has had conversations with several of his players about using social media responsibly. A synopsis of his 30-minute speech he gives his players goes something like this:

“There’s two things in this world you can’t get back and that’s time and what you put on the Internet,” he said. “All we really have at the end of the day is our last name, so how do you want to be received?”

Dave Mencarini had been using @QOCoach for his Twitter account, but changed it to @UCoach_Mac the day before this story was published. An earlier version of this story referred to his old Twitter account name.