Are message boards good for high school athletics?

Human InterestBasketballSportsMike Smith (football coach)

It lasted less than 30 seconds, and no one ever compared it to the Pistons-Pacers melee that spilled into the stands a few years back. But there had been nothing like it around these parts for several years, so it was the talk of the HRVarsity.com message boards.

The fight that happened in last week's Tabb-York football game was discussed at length, from all sides and angles. Then, at 11:16 p.m., a couple hours after the game had ended, an interesting post appeared from someone identified as "Tiger_Line."

"As a Tabb lineman, I would just like to apologize to all of the Tabb fans and to anyone that was at the game tonight," he wrote. "We did not play as well as we should have and this is our third loss to York in a row.

"But most importantly, I would like to say (we're) sorry for the fight on the field. It's disgraceful to not only Tabb but to York as well. High school football is aggressive and physical, but a fight like that is just a disgrace to the sport, to the teams, and to the school."

It was from the heart, and it was well written. It also was unusual to see an athlete taking a public forum to make a statement.

But get used to it.

With the rising popularity among message boards -- from local ones like HRVarsity.com and VirginiaPreps.com to those associated with college and pro teams -- the rules are changing.

HRVarsity.com has several features for high school fans — game stories, player profiles, photos, statistics, standings, etc. But the message boards are by far the most popular item.

On Saturday, the day after the tussle between York and Tabb, there were 16,243 posts on HRVarsity.com forums. That's nearly 30 percent of the total traffic on HRVarsity.com.

The appeal is understandable. Membership is free and you're not required to identify yourself. That allows you to say what you want without anyone knowing who you are.

Of course, that also can lead to trouble.

"The problem I have is, it gives a voice to people who intentionally like to create issues and then hide behind a screen name," said Mike Tallon, Woodside's girls' basketball and softball coach. "I absolutely hate the fact that these message boards make some people feel important because of the information they can print on screen under an alias."

"Everybody's a genius," Phoebus coach Stan Sexton agreed. "And it's like, 'I can say what I want because nobody knows who I am.'"

That wasn't the case with Tiger_Line, who was eloquent in his apology for Friday night's ugliness. Tigers coach Matt Lawson doesn't disagree with what his player wrote. But he wishes the player, who he would not identify, wouldn't have taken his thoughts to cyberspace.

"That's the way kids communicate today," he said. "Maybe we need to deal with that better. But when people get on there and start posting, it just keeps thing going that don't need to keep going."

While some coaches want no part of the message boards, others actually participate. Kecougthan baseball coach Chad Ochsenfeld posts on HRVarsity.com forums under the name CoachOx and never attempts to hide who he is.

"I try to avoid talking about my team directly," he said. "Actually, I wasn't on much last year because of all the negativity. But in the past if somebody was criticizing an umpire — I used to be an umpire — I'd jump in for a different take.

"Overall, I think it's a great medium. If you have a rain-out, that's a great way to get the word out. Most of the posters are good. It's the small percentage that's ruining for everybody with their hidden agendas."

Most coaches encourage their players to not go on the message boards, and certainly not to engage in the arguments.

"High school kids are not generally mature enough to say, 'Hey, people are going to talk,'" he said. "They get hurt, mentally and emotionally hurt by this."

A prime target has been Kecoughtan pitcher Jake Cave. He admits he read some of the comments about him last spring on HRVarsity.com message boards — how he's overrated, cocky, etc. — and didn't always take them well.

"At first, I got a little mad," he said. "But now, I have to laugh at it. If I want to make (baseball) my career, I'm going to have to deal with it my whole life."

Cave said he has never posted in defense of himself. Asked how it feels knowing much of the criticism is coming from grown-ups who were never as good as he was, Cave laughed. "I think how one day they'll be on their couch watching me play," he said.

Generally, the threads are harmless. But occasionally, they aren't.

In 2009, the parent of a Bay Rivers District athlete unleashed a 1,965-word post (and several follow-ups) blaming the coach for a playoff loss. Several posters took him to task for his negativity, and the thread was eventually shut down by web site administrators after complaints.

Hampton coach Mike Smith says he has a strict off-limits policy regarding the message boards.

"If I ever catch them on there, they'll be in real trouble," he said. "It's not with the team concept."

Gloucester softball coach Red Lindsay would like to remove the problem.

"I guess, like most things, the intentions are good," he said. "But it's not used as it was intended. I know I don't read it."

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