Teams take aim at online taunting
Incident inspires warning to athletes
High school athletes talking trash to each other before a big game is an age-old tradition. Now school officials are worried
it may be migrating into cyberspace.
Medfield athletic director Jon Kirby said that last fall a Westwood player used the Internet to threaten some of Medfield's
top players. Kirby wasn't sure exactly what venue was used but said he believed it was a site that allows teens to set up
personal Web pages, which viewers can then comment on.
``From my end, I took it very seriously," said Kirby. ``I don't think in this day and age you can ignore things. I was
tremendously concerned and went to our administration."
Medfield posted extra police at the game, but, Kirby said, he couldn't keep the Westwood student from playing.
Westwood athletic director Karl Fogel disagreed with the characterization that his player threatened Medfield players,
and said students were ``going back and forth."
Kirby said the situation turned out to be complicated. If an official heard the same words on the field, the student could
be suspended from play. But it's not clear what school officials can do about communications that might be exchanged between
computers in private homes, he said.
``We couldn't get much of a buzz out of the Internet issue" at the time, Kirby said. ``People didn't want to address it,
so it just kind of went away."
Now, partly in response to the Medfield-Westwood incident, the schools' athletic conference will address such cyber threats
at a series of preseason practice games in various fall sports starting today, according to Phil Moresi , the president of
the Tri Valley League and Ashland's athletic director.
``Our general message is going to be that we, as athletic directors in the league, won't tolerate this and we will do our
own suspensions as we can," he said.
Moresi, who is past president of the state athletic directors association, said he has heard of about a dozen incidents
of trash talking on the Internet, but the practice is difficult to monitor.
Still, his league, which also covers Bellingham, Dover, Sherborn, Holliston, Hopkinton, Medway, Millis, and Norton, will
at least get the conversation going before classes start by trying to educate parents and players that there are consequences
if they behave inappropriately, on the field or in cyberspace.
Some schools are already trying to address the potential problem. In Bellingham, the school handbook will this year for
the first time include a line on the pitfalls of questionable Internet comments.
``Student athletes will not engage in any type of communications (Internet) with other athletes or fans that provokes violence
or that could be construed as taunting or harassment," states the handbook.
Bellingham athletic director Dennis Baker said the handbook calls for suspension from one or more games for players who
violate the rule. Bellingham had an incident a few years ago but hasn't had any problems since, he said.
``We're going to hold them accountable," he said.
Elaine Paradis, Watertown's athletic director, said neither her school district nor its conference, the Middlesex League,
have guidelines addressing rival athletes going after each other on the Internet. She believes the issue should be addressed,
though she hasn't thought about exactly what form that might take, before bigger problems crop up.
``We need to be proactive," she said. ``Unfortunately, sometimes we don't address things until they are a problem. . .
. Maybe we need to make a statement that now with technology so prevalent in our lives today, that this is also an area where
sportsmanship has to be carried through."
Two years ago high school football players from Watertown and archrival Belmont exchanged computer comments via an ``instant
messenger" program, she said. One of the Watertown players thought the exchange was getting out of hand and called police,
said Paradis, and school officials held workshops for the players to discuss the problem.
She said she doesn't know of any other such cases but added, ``there probably were a lot of other incidents" that went
Paul Wetzel, spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, the state's ruling body for high school
sports, said that although sportsmanship is a hot topic, cyber sportsmanship hasn't really received much attention.
He said perhaps schools or the MIAA should address it, but he emphasized that it's not as simple as it sounds.
``It's sort of a new thing that we need to deal with," said Wetzel. ``This may well be something we need to look into."
Four years ago , MIAA got involved when teens were posting unsportsmanlike messages to each other on an Internet message
board run by a newspaper, he said.
``Both the MIAA and the schools -- we always have some difficulty in dealing with things that happen outside the school,
off campus, or not during the school year," said Wetzel.
Both Medfield's Kirby and Westwood's Fogel agreed that it would be good to see the MIAA take a stand on cyber sportsmanship.
Fogel said the Westwood principal dealt with the Medfield incident by telling the players that online threats or taunts
would be unacceptable and result in suspensions. Since then , there have been no problems, he said, but a statewide policy
might prevent other such situations.
Kirby said last year's incident simply faded away without any action , but it could happen again, he said, and may have
already without officials knowing about it.
``It turned me on my head," said Kirby of the cyber threats. When threats are written down and posted on the Internet,
they get a kind of permanence that verbal comments don't, he said.
``You can't unring the bell. You can't make them take it back," he said.