KU News Service

Social media, 'forced crowdsourcing' have given fans unprecedented power in decisions to fire coaches

Fri, 05/09/2014

LAWRENCE — As the case of disgraced Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling so vividly illustrated, once evidence falls into the clutches of social media, the resulting downfall can be nearly instantaneous. A University of Kansas professor has examined how fans and the world at large now have the ability to put immense, immediate pressure on sporting organizations via social media to fire or discipline coaches and those in power in a new article. This “forced crowdsourcing” has the ability to change not only how coaches are fired or disciplined, but how the business of sport is carried out.

Jordan Bass, assistant professor of health, sport and exercise science, co-authored an article studying how forced crowdsourcing has changed coaching evaluation and assessment systems. It has been published in the International Sport Coaching Journal.

Bass and co-authors Mark Vermillion of Wichita State University and Paul Putz of Baylor University took on the topic after hearing the case of former Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice. Rice was shown on video throwing basketballs at his players’ heads, pushing them and verbally abusing them. The university’s athletic director initially suspended him but said he would keep the job. A backlash soon followed, and Rice was subsequently fired, and the athletic director eventually lost his job as well.

“The backlash was so swift and the vitriol was so intense,” Bass said. “Within 24 hours he went from being suspended to being fired and nothing had actually changed. The public backlash completely caused it.”

The story of coaches misbehaving is nothing new. Legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes was famous for his temper and stories circulated for years about him possibly physically and verbally abusing players. But it wasn’t until he punched a Clemson player during a widely televised bowl game that he was fired. Indiana’s famous basketball coach Bobby Knight was also well known for his outbursts for nearly two decades but was not disciplined until video surfaced of him violently grabbing and yelling at his players.

Today the process of public pressure is much accelerated, but Bass said one thing remains the same: People don’t demand a reaction until they can actually see and hear evidence of abuse or undesirable behavior. Sporting organizations have shown they are almost always unprepared to act when such a scandal breaks.

“We’re interested in this reaction that organizations just don’t seem to be ready for,” Bass said. “I think one of the biggest challenges for the next five years or more is how to deal with these situations in an immediate way.”

The fact that the public has shown to have the power to create change so quickly is a new development as well. By enacting immediate, well-orchestrated condemnations of coaches’ behaviors and evaluations, the public has in many ways taken the power from sporting organizations to handle decisions on whether to fire someone. When a situation happens as part of today’s 24-hour news cycle it can be “too in the face for an organization to ignore,” Bass said, hence the term “forced crowdsourcing.”

Complicating matters is the fact that social media is a two-way street for sporting organizations. Teams use all manner of social media to connect with and engage fans, supporters, the media and the general public. While “that’s great when things are going well,” Bass said, it provides a direct avenue for people to criticize organizations and demand changes be made.

Moreover, societal changes have happened alongside media changes. Whereas people once would accept a coach’s yelling and physical tactics as motivation or simply coaching that would “toughen a player up,” many now consider such behaviors as abuse. On top of that they have ways to voice that dissatisfaction previous generations did not.

Change is hard as well, and many people in charge of responding to such incidents have been in their careers for a long time and are still learning to adapt to the world of social media, instant feedback and never-ending news cycles. Old practices such as waiting for the next news cycle to respond are often no longer acceptable and misjudgments in how to react are often magnified. Organizations now have to respond to viral content when in the past they might be able to ignore what they felt to be rumors or talk not worthy of a response.

Bass said he hopes to explore in future research, via survey or interviews, if sporting organizations have policies or procedures in place to deal with such situations.

A changing media landscape has helped bring such stories of abuse to light that might not have been reported in previous generations. Media aggregator sites such as Huffington Post, celebrity gossip sites such as TMZ, sports blogs such as Deadspin and countless others thrive on breaking stories and posting content that traditional media may have ignored in the past.

“You see the ability to become a media star by breaking some of these stories,” Bass said. “The organization just can’t control the message on their own any more. There are too many competing voices."

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