AFTER THE POST: KENT STATE LEARNS THE PRICE OF 140 CHARACTERS
WORDS BY ALYSSA MORLACCI AND NICK SHOOK
ast time I saw Sam Wheeler, he was walking out of the Memorial Athletic Convocation Center, a ski mask resting below his eyes and a beanie covering everything above them. He’d intentionally assembled this look with more in mind than the cold air. He was in hiding. To me, his eyes and stature were still recognizable. I called his name, and he removed his disguise for a moment to talk about his suspension from the Kent State wrestling team, which happened a few days prior. He’d been the topic of conversation in classes, between friends and even on national news sites. Wheeler was removed indefinitely from the team for tweeting insensitively about NFL prospect Michael Sam’s announcement that he’s gay. Screenshots of his tweets were posted on national sites including the Huffington Post, where it raised nearly 1,500 comments in its first 5 hours of visibility. Like the one from “Mark C.,” which read: “This little bigot should be expelled not suspended...he can say what ever he wants but it doesn’t mean you get to say it with no consequences...goes for all the other bigots like him as well.” Or from ‘Michael J.’ stating: “Poor guy, the closet is a tough place, especially when your [sic] wearing a singlet!!!” Wheeler admitted to me during our two-minute-long conversation the negligent manner of his tweets because although he does have a right to free speech, he also has a responsibility to represent the athletic department. Hours after Wheeler gained national attention, director of athletics Joel Nielsen released this statement: “We are aware of the insensitive tweets by one of our student athletes. On behalf of Kent State University, we consider these comments to be ignorant and not indicative of the beliefs held by our university community as a whole. This is an educational opportunity for all of our student-athletes.” Wheeler’s wrestling coach Jim Andrassy followed with: “As an alum of Kent State University and as Sam’s head coach, I was surprised and offended by what I read on Twitter. I have spoken to Sam personally, and while he is remorseful, he will be suspended indefinitely while we determine the best course of action moving forward.” In the Student-Athlete handbook all Kent State University athletes are required to sign, only one page (p. 56) covers what the department calls “internet-based social networking communities,” requiring student-athletes to affirm that they “shall conduct themselves in a manner befitting highly visible members of the university, department and head coach.” The department also reserves the right “to take action against any currently enrolled student-athlete engaged in behavior that violates
THE BURR // APRIL 2014
University, Department, or team rules, including such behavior that is evidenced in postings on the Internet.” The page doesn’t list Twitter as one of the social media outlets the policy covers, but it is implied. Deputy athletic director Devin Crosby says the handbook is frequently rewritten, due to the everchanging nature of the Information Age. The department was prepared for a potential social media mistake—or, at least had covered its own backside legally in the case that an athlete would violate the policy. However, the department didn’t take action to educate its athletes. Two former Kent State athletes told The Burr their education on social media responsibility was sporadic at best. “I can’t remember who exactly talked to us, but they only did my freshman and sophomore year,” former volleyball player Kathy Krupa says. “They told us not to put pictures up with any alcohol or parties. That’s basically it.” “[The talks were about] common sense,” former women’s basketball player Tamzin Barroilhet says. “Mostly about not posting stupid photos of us partying, no photos with cups or bottles in our hands. And then it was not allowed to post any bad things about the university or athletic programs, no racial, sexist or religious comments.” As Crosby will admit, since the Wheeler situation went viral, the department has realized a streamlined educational program is necessary for all of its athletes. “With this in light, it shows the direct need to have an educational program that is consistent across all of our sports,” Crosby says. “We are in the process right now of selecting dates, figuring out the best times to bring in our student-athletes, segmented by gender, class…every single one of our studentathletes will go through this process.” Wheeler will see his suspension come to a resolution, either by way of reinstatement or permanent removal from the team. But that decision will occur after he completes an education program on the subjects of social media and likely, homosexuality, though Crosby was rather vague when describing his “education.” What all other student-athletes, at both Kent State and beyond, should take from this is simple, yet convoluted. Division I studentathletes, like it or not, are role models. They are also considered public figures,who are closely watched. Crosby says the issue is one the NCAA has had “the darnedest of time trying to put their hands around.” If Kent State introduces a unified approach to social media and public conduct, on which Crosby says they are working diligently, it may make the transition from embarrassed athletic department to national innovator.