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]