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Messages Exchanged in Internet Fan Forums Can Damage the Reputations of Players and Programs

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Four years ago, Jon Miller began gathering articles related to University of Iowa athletics and e-mailing them to family and friends, often with his own editorial input. Within five months, the dispatches extended beyond his inner circle to 5,000 interested Iowa fans. Today, Miller serves as publisher of Hawkeye Nation.com, which he claims has evolved into one of the five most visited college team web sites in the world since its launch in April 2001.

Such is the power of the Internet to create virtually instant communities of college sports fans linked by their passion for one school and, perhaps, their disdain for certain others. Experts credit the popularity of these sites - and most Division I schools are likely to inspire more than one - to the spirited messages posted within fan forums. It's a chance for visitors to celebrate, vent and gossip. If left unchecked, however, these chat rooms can degenerate into rumor mills run amok, capable of damaging the reputations of individual players and entire programs.

Never was HawkeyeNation.com more popular than last summer. In the midst of off-season trouble involving several Iowa basketball players, message boards on Miller's site were awash with dirty laundry, and he often exercised his prerogative to censor chat participants who occasionally confused fact with fiction. It's a process that keeps Miller busy year-round, since his site garners millions of visits each month.

During one day in December, for instance, HawkeyeNation.com registered 347,000 hits, 266,000 of which took the form of chat messages. Miller deleted 20 such posts that particular day - among them, a message from a University of Illinois fan calling Iowa men's basketball player Pierre Pierce a rapist. Miller had seen similar messages many times before. In November, Pierce pleaded guilty to assault causing injury as part of a controversial plea bargain that allowed him to remain with the basketball program during the 2002-03 season.

"A faction of fans were calling him a rapist, but that's not what the court record would indicate," Miller says. "Those are serious allegations, and my stance has been that anything outside the public record in a legal case like that is something I'm just going to delete."

By taking such a stance, Miller is subjecting himself to legal woes of his own should something potentially harmful to an individual's reputation slip past him or one of the monitors who check Hawkeye Nation.com's chat rooms regularly each day. "If a discussion area is maintained to the point that proctors or system operators are looking over those discussions and serving as editors, the person maintaining that site is liable for what is said on it," says libel expert Jan Samoriski, a University of Michigan-Dearborn communications professor and author of Issues in Cyberspace: Communication, Technology, Law and Society on the Internet Frontier, published last year. Conversely, if Miller chose not to monitor his message boards, only the messages' authors would find themselves potential targets of a defamation lawsuit. Miller would be off the hook entirely, but most certainly at the expense of his credibility with Iowa coaches and athletic administrators. "If we know that somebody's allowing the chat lines to just get out of control and include nonfactual gossip, we don't talk to that person," says Iowa assistant men's basketball coach Greg Lansing.

Unlike some fan sites, Miller's enumerates rules for message board participation (though Miller admits a small percentage of participants actually read them). He also offers an e-mail address to which inflammatory messages can be brought to his attention. He'll even jump into the fray in real time to articulate his desire to keep chat sessions clean. Miller further takes the high road by occasionally approaching Iowa athletics officials with suspect information posted in the fan forums to verify its accuracy. "I try to run this site as a legitimate news source, as if I were working for a traditional daily newspaper," says Miller, who appears weekly on Des Moines television and has been quoted by the Iowa City PressCitizen, the Des Moines Register and the Daily Iowan student newspaper. "I've earned the respect of my peers."

Character defamation is only one potential pitfall raised by fan web sites, according to those close to the genre. An entire program's recruiting efforts can suffer as a result of misinformation shared online. "If you read a report on a kid one day that says he's leaning toward Illinois, Michigan fans might see that and write, 'Oh, we didn't want him anyway. This kid's no good.' In fact, he still may be considering Michigan," Miller says. "It has a huge impact." Says Lansing, "We know for a fact that recruits and recruits' parents read those things. It can be really good if there is a lot of positive stuff, but when there's a constant negative tone on those sites, it can absolutely eliminate you as far as recruiting a certain person."

There was plenty of negativity among Iowa fans last year. In addition to the situation surrounding Pierce, one basketball player was charged with marijuana possession, another was charged with underage alcohol possession and a third was deemed academically ineligible. It was enough to have fans calling for Steve Alford's job as head coach. "If you got on a Hawkeye message board during the months of July, August and September, when all of this was taking place, there weren't too many good posts being made by fans," says Josh Clark, an Iowa sophomore and publisher of HawkTalkOnline.com. "I think that's when a rival coach could come into the home of a player and say, 'Go to HawkTalkOnline.com and look what the fans are currently saying about Coach Alford and his program. Look at the fan support they're currently receiving.' A kid is going to look into that, because fan support is a very big thing."

Bobby Burton, director of network and business development for Rivals.com (a nationwide network of college, high school, recruiting and sports expert sites that counts HawkeyeNation.com among its affiliates), downplays the impact of chat room-generated recruiting scuttlebutt. "You have to give kids more credit than that," Burton says. "These kids have been reared on the Internet. They know what a message board is vs. what content and editorial is. The bottom line is that what Joe Paterno or Rick Pitino says to them means infinitely more than what Joe Fan pens on a message board."

Nonetheless, message boards continue to serve as a source of recruiting intelligence - if that's the right word - especially in basketball, says Clark, who has covered Iowa's recruiting efforts online since his junior year of high school. (HawkTalkOnline.com is currently affiliated with TheInsiders.com network.) "In football, there are many prospects all around the country and many sleepers," he says. "In basketball, it basically comes down to the top 200 guys. There's a fine line between schools when gaining a recruiting advantage in basketball."

Lansing admits that Hawkeye basketball coaches will frequent the chat rooms of schools vying for the same prospects whose names appear on Iowa's wish list, particularly after a recruit's official visit to those schools. "We understand that not everything on there is fact," he says. "Believe me, after what we've been through with Pierre, we understand that. But we also understand that if there's anything that we can learn about our opponents off their chat lines, we will try to do it. I think everybody does that."

Between the two major networks and other, unaffiliated sites, the current number of team web sites nationwide may well number into the thousands, according to Miller. "It's just amazing - scary, actually," he says. "If I were an administrator at Iowa or any school, I would be cognizant of these things, because they can have an impact on what you're doing."

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