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Editorial / An ugly side of school sports in cyber space

Published 12:20 pm, Thursday, March 28, 2013
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When the ancient Greeks held the first Olympics 776 B.C., one of the games' guiding principles was to encourage good relations between the cities of Greece.

Nearly 2,800 years later, the modern Olympics embrace the same spirit. Its core values: Excellence, friendship and respect.

Those are the components of good sportsmanship that high school sports are supposed to embody -- the ideals of playing by the rules, of being humble in victory and gracious in defeat.

But that was before social media.

Whether via Twitter, on Facebook or other venues, trash talk is the new normal for many high school athletes and fans in Fairfield County -- yes, including some in Westport. The ritual of post-game handshakes that parents observe can mask other behaviors.

The Westport News and its sister paper, the Fairfield Citizen, conducted a comprehensive, four-month review of how social media is used in high school sports in the area.

It found that Twitter is a terrific way to immediately alert fans and players to scores, schedule changes and other news. It found that team Facebook pages were great places to post news and pictures, to coordinate fundraising efforts and promote teams.

But the review found an uglier side of social media in school sports, too. In their report, "The Digital Dilemma: How social media is soiling school sports" the newspapers found:

Vulgarity-laced posts that disparage opponents are common.

References to alcohol and drunkenness are frequent.

Some athletes post photos of themselves with beer or liquor, with what appear to be drugs -- even firearms.

Some cheerleaders, long held as the epitome of good sportsmanship, engage in profane cyber-taunting, too.

Make no mistake: Profanity and alcohol and drug references cut across teen culture at large.

But coaches and athletic directors worry that -- because athletes have greater visibility than the general student population and directly represent schools -- such material is damaging to the reputations of their schools, their towns and the athletes themselves.

Teenagers are typically impulsive, and many have a sense of being bulletproof. But their commonly held belief that cyber behavior carries no consequences can be burst in an instant.

Athletes have been suspended from competition, scholarships have been lost because of indiscreet tweets or poor-taste posts.

On its website, the International Olympic Committee prominently displays its core values.

The respect component, according to the IOC, includes respect for oneself and for each other.

An athlete at an area high school this past fall tweeted, "My volleyball team is f****** amazing and yours suck!" Other athletes and fans have disparaged foes with racial and homophobic slurs. So much for respecting your opponents.

Presenting yourself in photos and text as both vulgar and a heavy drinker -- whether true or just for school-corridor cred -- hardly seems like self respect. Or very athletic, for that matter.

Westport is more fortunate than some communities. Staples athletic director Marty Lisevick is outspoken on the topic, and its coaches each year have the option of taking a two- to three-hour class on the do's and don'ts of social media.

The school would do well to draft a code of cyber behavior for athletes and makes review sessions mandatory before each season.

But the issue comes back to parents -- many of whom encourage their kids to participate in sports because of they believe athletics develop the habits of hard work, persistence, teamwork -- oh, yeah, and sportsmanship.

All of those are from the pre-social-media playbook.

Parents should be proud of their kids who compete in sports. But not if those same kids are turning to social media to trash opponents or, unwittingly, themselves.

What did your kid tweet today?