Coaching tips

How to Keep Your Players From Going Viral and Ruining Their Youth Sports Careers

By Doug Abrams

The past few weeks have not been kind to Annette McCullough and Austin O’Such.  Both players competed in games that otherwise would have attracted little attention locally, and no attention elsewhere.  But both players committed flagrant fouls that went viral when films were posted on YouTube.  Thanks to the national – and indeed, international – notoriety that has dogged the two, their sports careers will never be the same.  The permanent damage holds important lessons for parents, coaches, and players in the age of the Internet and social media.

Momentary Lapses of Teenage Judgment

In a March 26 girls’ soccer game in South Carolina, Lewisville High School’s Annette McCullough was chasing the ball with a Chester High School opponent.  After routine contact, the two went down.  The 18-year-old senior McCullough arose, grabbed the opponent’s hair, and began punching her in the face and head nearly a dozen times.  The opponent, still on the ground, covered herself to fend off the blows until a woman separated the two.  An official showed McCullough a red card and escorted her from the field.  “Some incidental contact ended in one girl going down and [McCullough] just got up and started pummeling,” the referee said after the game.  “Contact is a part of soccer, but when you retaliate like that, . . . there is no place in the game for that.”

In Arizona three days later, a dispute broke out after a Scottsdale Community College batter laid down a bunt near the first base line in the top of the ninth inning of a close game against Yavapai Community College.  Players from both teams gathered and began exchanging words on the right side of the infield, but with little or no pushing or shoving.  A Scottsdale runner, with his back to the outfield, stood alone on second base watching and waiting for play to resume.  Within a few seconds, Yavapai’s 18-year-old freshman left fielder Austin O’Such left his position to race toward the commotion.  On the way, O’Such charged full speed at the unsuspecting base runner, blindsided him, and sent him sprawling into the basepath as his helmet flew off.  After a few moments, Scottsdale’s trainer helped the base runner to his feet.

A local television station caught the soccer assault on film, and a spectator filmed the blind-siding on second base.  As of April 18, the McCullough soccer film appears on at least 31 YouTube sites, which have received a total of more than 300,000 views.  The O’Such baseball film has received more than three million views on a YouTube site entitled “The Worst Cheap Shot Ever in Baseball.”  (This column’s readers can view the soccer film (2:16 in length) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HI9zOkM5vjA, and the baseball film (1:32 in length) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UywRu8QPXA ).

Both players quickly forfeited their personal privacy as bloggers responded with nasty, and sometimes vulgar, commentary directed at them by name.  Newspaper stories from as far away as Britain and Australia also reported the incidents and named names.

The Worldwide Aftermath

Cheap shots have surely marked local sports for decades.  Charges and counter-charges might simmer for a while, but memories and bad feelings would soon fade for lack of permanent evidence as players and families moved on with their private lives.  Annette McCullough and Austin O’Such were not so fortunate. 

McCullough was charged with third-degree assault and battery by prosecutors who undoubtedly felt local pressure to respond swiftly to an attack that a worldwide audience of thousands saw on film.    

O’Such apologized and the college suspended him for the rest of the season, but someone anonymously posted his personal information online.  He and his parents began receiving death threats by email, texts and phone messages from all over the country.  Threats also came to Yavapai’s coach from people who charged that his team had planned the blindsiding.  Yavapai’s athletic director told the New York Daily News that “People were saying, ‘We’re going to come out and get you, we’re going to take care of this.’  Kinda crazy talk.  But in this day and age, you don’t know who’s serious and who’s just talking.”

O’Such heeded advice from campus police and his athletic director to leave school for his own safety. The left fielder returned home to his family in California, reportedly began taking online courses, and says that he is unlikely to return to college to play baseball again.  According to the Arizona Republic, “O’Such ran over [the runner] and then social media ran over O’Such.” 

An Ounce of Prevention

What lessons do the unhappy McCullough and O’Such episodes hold for parents, coaches and players in youth leagues and the high schools?  On “The Sports Edge,” Rick Wolff and I have urged parents and coaches to provide their players advance instruction about the Internet’s dangers, and not to avoid the dialog until after something bad happens.  The Internet and the social media are facts of life today, and adults ignore their potency at their children’s peril.  

Proactive, open communication is key.  Parents at home need to talk with their players about self-discipline on the field in the Internet age; coaches must discuss cyber realities during preseason meetings with players and parents alike, and then must reinforce warnings periodically throughout the season, when teenage temptations to exercise bad judgment may grow stronger as pressures build.  Benjamin Franklin was right that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” but he wrote before the Internet.  The McCullough and O’Such stories demonstrate that youthful lapses in judgment sometimes have no cure at all.  Once an incident goes viral, the electronic media is unforgiving and the incident remains in the public domain.

How can youth coaches warn their players and parents about the electronic media most effectively?  Each coaching staff is the best judge of its own team’s circumstances and the sensibilities of its families, but the adage that a “picture is worth a thousand words” provides a good start.  

I would urge coaches to show the brief McCullough and O’Such videos to the players and parents at upcoming meetings in the next few weeks or months.  Indeed, the coach should repeat the videos two or three times in succession if they initially astound viewers.  Then the coach can reinforce the lesson by distributing one or more news stories about the lasting fallout from each filmed incident.  Stories, including ones cited below, can be retrieved from Google.

In grade school, “Show and Tell” taught us that people respond best to instruction that they both see and hear.  By presenting both film clips and news stories, coaches encourage parents and players to grasp the ultimate lesson – that a teenager’s momentary on-the-field impulsiveness can wreak serious, often permanent damage because barely noticeable surveillance devices in public places dominate our public lives nowadays.  If an incident from an otherwise nondescript South Carolina high school soccer game or Arizona community college baseball game can go viral within minutes or hours, an incident from any game can go viral. 

An old saying reminds us that “Integrity is what you do when you don’t think anyone is watching.”  Playing sports the right way has always demanded integrity, but the demand is even greater today because someone may very well be watching – with a camera. 

[Sources: Scott Bordow, Game Between Yavapai College, Scottsdale Community College Hits 1 Million Views Online, Arizona Republic, Apr. 9, 2012; Rheanna Murray, Baseball Player Leaves College After Video of Him Pummeling Opposing Athlete Goes Viral on YouTube, Prompts Threats, N.Y. Daily News, Apr. 10, 2012; Thomas Durante, Hardly a Fair Fight: Shocking Video of College Baseball Player Plowing Over Oblivious Rival During Game, Daily Mail (Britain), Apr. 8, 2012; Louise Boyle, Red Card! Female Soccer Player, 18, Drags Rival By Hair and Punches Her 11 Times After Being Tripped During Match, Daily Mail (Britain), Mar. 29, 2012; South Carolina Girl Charged With Assault Following High School Soccer Brawl, http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/south-carolina-girl-charged-with-assault-following-high-school-soccer-brawl/story-e6frfku0-1226313348498;

Cameron Smith, South Carolina Teen’s Brutal Soccer Attack Earns Assault Charge, Yahoo! Sports, Mar. 29, 2012]

  • Shelley

    Excellent article and very constructive! Thank you!!

  • Jennifer May

    Great article, Doug! Thanks for your commentary and time on these issues!

  • Drew

    I just saw of picture of this kid Austin O’Such @ The San Jose Mercury News practicing with Denver Broncos QB Peyton Manning. Apparently he’s gotten so much publicity from the hit he gave that football programs are actually taking a look at him. Ridiculous! See link:

    http://yourviews.mercurynews.com/mycapture/photos/Image.aspx?ImageID=1267002&EventID=256437&CategoryID=23410&CollectionID=0&Sort=

    • Perhaps he should try pro football because I doubt that college coaches now would want to take on his baggage, in baseball or any other sport. Book deals, movie rights and other opportunities sometimes open up for people who assume the limelight temporarily only because of their notoriety. The books and movies generally outlast the notoriety.

  • You just gave me a whole different perspective on this. What if it was my kid? Although I hope that my daughter would never do that, there’s something to be said for second chances after paying the consequences. It doesn’t look like this kids will get one. Well, maybe a reality show!

    • Thank you very much. For more than 100 years, the nation’s juvenile justice and child protective systems have been predicated on a core principle that children make mistakes that should not dog them the rest of their lives. With proper adult guidance, children can mend their ways and learn from their mistakes. Just a few years ago, the Supreme Court recognized that “a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults and are more understandable among the young.”

      The two athletes featured in this column made impetuous mistakes but caused no one permanent injury, and both athletes should be able to get on with their lives. Americans can be a forgiving people, as we see so often when fallen politicians reinvent themselves and get a second chance in the public arena. Forgivenss should extend to kids too.

      That being said, the social media assure that the actions of the two athletes will not be totally erased from memory. Parents and coaches have a more important role than ever to play in teaching their players sportsmanship and mutual respect that make youth athletic competition more worthwhile for everyone.

  • Kids (and adults) are responsible for their actions and they need to understand that. What if one of these kids was seriously injured or permanently disabled during these incidents? at that point forgiveness no longer works. I say bring on the cameras, let’s have no cover-ups, responsible parties prosecuted appropriately for their actions. If a person has problems with self control they shouldn’t be given a pass just because it was during “the game.”

    Of course the vigilante-types who are making threats against these people (and their families) are also in the wrong. We have a justice system and the victim also has the option to file suit so spectators should stay out of the way and not cause trouble.

    As Doug said, “Parents and coaches have a more important role than ever to play in teaching their players sportsmanship and mutual respect that make youth athletic competition more worthwhile for everyone.” The role was always important but now there’s no hiding because the camera is rolling…

  • BBMom

    Great article Doug!

    My daughter has filmed my son’s baseball games from day one. Every single game for the past 11 and 1/2 years. Everybody knows she has a camera and it is always on, sometimes 2 cameras. It’s not like we hide them, big tri-pod, she’s always standing up and moving all over to get different angles. Over the years she has filmed entire games and handed them out to every single player, then she went to individual videos of each player on the team, now she just films my son and a few requests from a parent who forgot their camera or a player who is trying to work on his swing etc. We Literally have thousands of videos, and have over 500 baseball videos on YouTube.
    We never put advertisements on our videos, and as a rule, no music, just the sounds of the game. If you find a video that has music on it, then you know there was a belligerent parent, coach or player in the back ground that we had to edit out.

    You cannot begin to imagine the things that get recorded at a baseball game without realizing it, until you sit down to edit the film. Coaches in the dugout laughing and bad mouthing their own player whose out on the field. Players in the dugout bad mouthing their team mate. Players, (remember they all know we are recording) blowing up and telling the umpire to “_” off. Players losing their mind after they strike out, throwing bats and helmets. Coaches hitting the hard stuff, and kids packing their lips. Players who just struck out, turning back and flipping the bird to the umpire. Players texting on their phone in the outfield. Players making out with their girlfriends between innings. Parents, who literally are sitting 2 feet from the camera, and talking _ _ _ _ about so and so. really!
    What I don’t understand is how come the umpires are allowing this level of disrespect, some eject, but most of them just ignore it.

    I think all parents and coaches should have had that talk with their kids at a very young age about character, integrity and respect, I know I did, and I’ve always thought not enough importance is put on a players character when it comes to recruiting in sports. I like what Jim The Reverb King said, I think it’s better to let them all be themselves, the camera does not lie. They made their bed, now they have to lie in it.