Travis Wilson is general manager of the Wisconsin Sports Network and writes a bi-weekly "State of Play" article at LakeCountryNow.com. This article first appeared at Wissports.net.
By now, many of you are familiar with the story of Hilbert girls basketball player April Gehl, who was suspended for five games after posting a vulgar response to a recent WIAA email sent to all schools with a reminder on Association sportsmanship guidelines.
There are many layers to this story, and many people, including those normally uninterested in high school sports, have chimed in with opinions.
It is important to separate the email sent by the WIAA from the response to it by Gehl. Many people are muddying waters by conflating the two.
For those unaware, the athlete's tweet (edited for language here) was: "Eat s*** WIAA".
It is important to note that the WIAA did not suspend her, nor did they direct the school to suspend her. According to the athlete's mother, the WIAA email to the Hilbert school administration asked them to "please take care of it" (language which the WIAA disputes). It was the Hilbert schools and athletic director Stan Diedrich who handed out the five-game punishment, in accordance with the school's Co-Curricular Handbook.
Some have wondered why the WIAA would be involved at all. After all, the tweet did not use the Twitter "@" function to directly tag the WIAA account. It is likely that the WIAA, like many businesses and organizations (including WSN), has a Twitter search or alert set-up to identify any mentions of them. We use it as a business tool to identify what people are saying about us (both good and bad), and to assist people who may be having problems or questions ("can't get my wissports account to work" for example).
Upon seeing the tweet, which included a portion of the WIAA's Sportsmanship email to schools, the WIAA likely identified Gehl as a current student-athlete based on her Twitter bio and understandably did not like or approve of her response, prompting an email to the school.
Now, would I have been fine with the school handing out a 1 or 2 game suspension, or even a verbal warning to the student-athlete with an apology and removal of the offensive tweet? Absolutely. But I'm also absolutely fine with the school following their Handbook and providing the suspension it called for.
Because let's be clear: the tweet was inappropriate, and deserved to be addressed. Too often in recent years with the rise of Social Media, student-athletes and students have developed a misplaced idea that they can say whatever they want wherever they want and get away with it.
In fact, myself, WSN, and other WisSports.net staff have been the recipients of numerous rude, vulgar, and disrespectful comments. Name a word banned by the FCC and it's been used towards us on multiple occasions, including sometimes by current student-athletes.
I've seen racist, sexist, homophobic, and vulgar public posts by student-athletes. I've seen trash talking and threats to players or fans from other teams.
And to be honest, I have at times contacted a coach to notify them of the posts if I feel it is necessary. Not to get a player punished, but so it can be a learning opportunity for them.
There is a false sense of security by some that social media posts are somehow "protected" or akin to a text message conversation between friends. Unfortunately, as many adults learn even, that is not the case. Posting a derogatory tweet or swearing at a person or organization becomes public the minute you hit "Send". Your "freedom of speech" or "freedom of expression," as many people have bemoaned, does not guarantee you the right to say anything any time. What you say comes with limits, consequences, and responsibilities.
This situation also highlights the absolute need for schools, coaches, and teams to develop and implement fair and common-sense Social Media Policies for student-athletes. To clearly lay out expectations and consequences. Too many coaches put their head in the sand around Social Media, thinking if they aren't on it or don't follow it, it doesn't happen.
My personal philosophy is that if I was a coach, the first question on my preseason questionnaire would be for each student to provide me with their Twitter and Facebook usernames so I could follow them and ensure no inappropriate content is posted. And, with student-athletes knowing they are being watched, they are much more likely to refrain from potentially damaging posts.
People lose jobs, job opportunities, scholarships, relationships, and much more because of careless Social Media posts every day, and it is important that student-athletes begin understanding that.
Unfortunately, it's a lesson learned by this student-athlete too late.
Guidelines in place
Now, let's look at the WIAA's Sportsmanship Guidelines which caused the offending tweet in the first place, and have begun to catch national attention.
For one thing, it is important to note that these aren't new, despite what several journalists have falsely indicated. The Sportsmanship Guidelines have been around for years, with the WIAA's Sportsmanship Committee founded in 1977. Currently, the committee consists of 11 members, including school administrators, an officials representative, and a member of WACPC (Wisconsin Association of Cheer/Pom Coaches).
The Sportsmanship Guidelines were developed and approved by the member schools. Every member school receives the guidelines as part of their tournament information. It is up to the member schools to enforce them as they see fit.
Every state association has similar guidelines, though not all go into specific detail about "inappropriate sportsmanship" cheers as the WIAA guide does. However, all identify taunting, disrespectful, and demeaning cheers or chants as "inappropriate sportsmanship."
What is "taunting," "disrespectful," or "demeaning" is up for debate, however.
I'm not sure I agree with the entire itemized list of inappropriate cheers identified by the WIAA, including "airball," "scoreboard," "We can't hear you," and others. But many chants and cheers heard at high school games are over the line in my opinion, and have been allowed by schools for too long, which simply encourages students to keep pushing the line on good taste.
Adult behavior at high school sports events needs to be addressed just as much or even more so than high school student sections. Swearing, booing, yelling, berating (of officials, players and coaches) is a near-constant at most games. Some schools and conferences have begun to appropriately address such behavior with increased preseason education, fan codes of conduct and more.
The bottom line is that the WIAA rightly has a set of Sportsmanship Guidelines, though a review of what specific cheers/chants are acceptable and unacceptable may be needed.