Some of my Big Orange brethren might write me off for this.
A lot of them are holding themselves up in high esteem after public backlash forced the University of Tennessee to renege on its head coaching offer to Ohio State University Defensive Coordinator Greg Schiano Sunday, in one of the wildest news stories in college football history.
But as more information comes to light about Schiano’s past, the more I think what happened Sunday is a case of social media becoming a conduit and a tool for unhealthy mob mentality.
When long-suffering Tennessee fans saw the reports of Schiano being offered the head coaching job, many immediately took to Twitter and social media to voice outrage. Apart from Schiano’s less-than-stellar coaching record and player reports of him displaying some of the same traits as former UT coaches Derek Dooley and Butch Jones, many fans took umbrage with the fact that Schiano was connected to the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal.
Within hours, those on social media had whipped themselves into a frenzy. UT Athletic Director John Currie’s cellphone number was posted on Twitter. Gadflies called for his resignation.
Before long, state representatives — such as Greene and Cocke County’s Jeremy Faison — and even gubernatorial candidates were weighing in, using social media to call for the un-hiring of Schiano before he had even been hired. Even White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders got in on the protests, saying on her Facebook page that Schiano covered up for Sandusky at Penn State.
Lots of the blowback I saw on social media Sunday was couched in protecting Tennessee — and kids — from a coach who some football fans saw as being complicit in a horrendous sex scandal. The famous rock — used as a message board by students on UT’s campus — was emblazoned with the message: “Schiano covered up rape at Penn State.”
Here’s the problem in all this: The evidence of such a cover-up on Schiano’s part is flimsy at best and based on hearsay. Yahoo Sports Columnist Dan Wetzel wrote an authoritative column late Sunday night detailing the allegation made against Schiano regarding the Penn State scandal.
The allegation came from a Penn State assistant coach, who worked at the program years after Schiano had left. The assistant said another assistant had previously told him that Schiano had witnessed Sandusky “doing something to a boy in the shower,” but that Schiano never said anything to authorities.
When this deposition testimony was made public in 2016, Schiano immediately denied it.
That flimsy allegation won’t hold up in a court of law, and prosecutors never thought it credible enough to pursue legal action against Schiano.
From a media law perspective, the messages scrawled on the rock at UT and across feeds on social media could be considered libelous. They are defamatory toward Schiano, and right now, their veracity can’t be confirmed.
But outside of legalities, it’s wrong to smear a man with so little evidence. This episode will certainly stay with Tennessee, but it will likely always follow Schiano. I saw many folks on social media Sunday — a lot of whom were probably ignorant of the facts than malicious — toss allegations around about Schiano as flippantly as we all complain about Derk Dooley’s head coaching abilities.
Let me be clear: Those who participated or who were complicit in the Penn State sex scandal should be known far and wide, so that we can work toward making sure that never happens again and so that justice may be done.
But can the Tennessee fans painting Schiano as a criminal say they know — authoritatively — Schiano to be a criminal? Can that be proven? What if those fans are wrong? What kind of damage has been done to him?
I get the backlash against Currie and UT for even looking at Schiano as an option. For both football and public relations reasons, it was imprudent to pursue Schiano.
Argue all day that he wasn’t the right coaching fit for Tennessee. Try to convince Currie and the media that whatever his coaching abilities, the Penn State baggage isn’t worth the hire in the first place.
But I’m afraid too many Tennessee fans — including elected officials — morphed into a social media mob without ever investigating the serious claims many said was the basis of their outrage.
Tennessee is better than that.
Those of us in my profession have to be careful about how we treat allegations of criminal wrongdoing in the written word. Social media users should be too.