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11/20/2012 3:55:38 PM -
Social Media and Coaching

Google the name “AJ Barker” and read about his situation. In a nutshell, Barker is the number one wide receiver at the University of Minnesota. He’s also a walk-on who, even though he’s in his junior year and is a major contributor, has yet to “earn” a scholarship. He made the news today and yesterday because he quit the team. He apparently had a dispute with the head coach and the athletic training staff regarding how he was rehabilitating an ankle injury. He says the head coach ripped him a new a-hole as a result, and so he’s transferring.

That’s not all, however. Because of the availability of social media, which allows the public unprecedented access to collegiate athletes, we’re able to read a Tumblr post by Barker himself. In it, he shares an email he wrote to his head coach. This email contains some very serious accusations. I don’t know how I feel about this, because even with high school kids, we’ve run into similar—albeit less serious—problems.

Here are the main arguments, as I see them:

THERE ARE TWO SIDES TO THIS STORY. We, however, are only going to get one. The athlete, provided he loses his inhibitions, is going to come out blasting. The coach won’t, primarily because most coaches aren’t used to social media, but also because a coach isn’t going to make himself look unprofessional by engaging in an internet “flame war” with one of his players. As a result, we’re going to get volumes of stuff from the athlete, and one-liner press conference sound bites from the coach. No matter who’s right or wrong, this is inherently unfair.

EVERYTHING HAS CONSEQUENCES. A fairly straightforward—at least the way it appears—dispute over injury treatment and discipline has now turned into a national news story because of the way it was handled by the athlete. Is he correct in speaking out like this? We don’t know, because we don’t know the truth. However, as people are slowly but surely finding out, even little one-liner tweets and Facebook posts can change your life for the worse. I don’t think many athletes have caught on to this reality yet, but they should.

THE ATHLETE THREW A GRENADE INTO HIS PROGRAM. Yes, the guy had a complaint, but who does this hurt? That’s right, his teammates. Minnesota is having a shit season. They’re 2-5 in a weak Big Ten. It’s not this guy’s job to singlehandedly bring down his coach while the season is still going on. Are you taking abuse? Are the trainers wrong about how you’re taking care of your injury? Is it bullshit that you’re not on scholarship yet? It’s possible that the answers to these questions are yes, yes, and yes. Don’t show up in July if you’re going to quit on your teammates. That’s a big red flag for me in this situation. Your coach is an abusive prick? That sucks, and maybe the world needs to know about it, but you made the choice to show up and play for the last three years. See it through.

HOW MUCH ABUSE IS NECESSARY? Here’s where I’ll side with the athlete, at least to an extent. This guy was a walk-on. He’s been playing at this school for three years without a scholarship. He worked his way up to a starting role, and he’s one of the best players on the team. How much “character building” does a kid like that really need? Does every single thing that happens in the course of preparing for a game have to be a teaching point with some coaches? Of course, I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes with this kid—he may, in fact, be a complete prick—but a walk-on who sticks it out and becomes my leading receiver has earned a little money in the bank with me when it comes to how he reacts to an injury. The guy obviously wants to be on the field, otherwise he wouldn’t have kept showing up.

SOCIAL MEDIA, AGAIN. It’s an understatement to say that the internet has profoundly changed the player-coach dynamic in every sport. In the past, nobody had any idea what an athlete was thinking, because everything took place behind closed doors. Now, at 9 pm, I can go on Facebook and Twitter and find out how badly our practices sucked because our kids can’t help themselves. Do we want this? Do we need it? Is it making things better? Can it? If so, how? This is something, as coaches, that we obviously need to think about going forward.

The answer? There is none. We’ll just have to see how this plays out, but as a coach (even if the athlete is correct in this instance), I’m having a hard time seeing how this can be a positive development for anyone.

Angry Coach

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