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Online Discussion Groups Not For Faint Of Heart

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Teams like Alabama give many in online discussion groups a polarizing launching point for behavior bad enough to be criminal. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images.
Teams like Alabama give many in online discussion groups a polarizing launching point for behavior bad enough to be criminal. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

To increase the exposure for Football.com, I joined a bunch of online discussion groups to gauge the opinions of fans and get some exposure for the site. All was fine until I started reading some of the posts.

There are some good groups out there. But they are way outnumbered by groups filled with people who hide behind a keyboard so they don't have to be accountable for what they post.

I had started working on a story about the relationship between die-hard fans and their success in their professional and private lives vs. the success of fair-weather fans. The psychology professor I was working with on the piece told me to have an accurate conclusion, I would need a sample of 100 surveys. I decided to post in several discussion groups what I needed and where they could find my other stories to prove I am genuine. I was cussed out by many people, called a bunch of names and accused of everything from running a Ponzi scheme to being a stalker.

I have heard people insulted for their race, gender, religion and even sexual preference.

But that was tame compared to what happened in another group. The group, called Finebaum after the talk-radio host Paul Finebaum, was recently shut down. It appears a couple female members had been getting sexually harrassed and the perpertrators also were involved in what could best be described as borderline criminal behavior. It got to the point law enforcement had to be called.

How does a football chat room get to the point that cops have to get involved?

In the 10 or so groups I joined, I noticed a few negative trends.

First, people put way too much emphasis on verbal commitments from high school players. Members seem to love to gloat about a kid saying he is going to attend their school. These are 17-year-old kids who change their minds at the drop of a hat. Just this week, a five-star recruit who had verbally committed to Iowa changed his mind and committed to Alabama.

That is not a new trend. While working for another web entity, Trent Richardson told me he had verbally committed to play at Texas. His reasoning was he was always Texas when he played video games. Three years ago, T.J. Yeldon told me on videotape that there was no way he would change his verbal committment from Auburn even though the school was being investigated for the recruitment of Cam Newton. Like Richardson, Yeldon ended up at Alabama. Don't put all your verbal committment eggs in the same basket until the ink is dry on national signing day.

Second, unless a member is an Alabama fan, they hate Alabama. The prevailing opinion is the Crimson Tide is overrated. To me, going 3-for-4 in BCS title games is not overrated.

Third, everyone likes to blame the media. It seems we sportswriters have conspired to do everything from taking down Johnny Manziel to the Lindburgh kidnapping. It's strange how all sportswriters are blamed. It appears the media gave Alabama the national title last season. Last time I checked, however, Notre Dame was the team being blown out, not the staff of the Birmingham News.

But using that logic does make sense. There have been teachers who have gone to jail for having sex with their students. I hate that all teachers sleep with their students. There have been police officers convicted for taking bribes. It's unfortunate that all cops are on the take. Using a generalization doesn't seem fair now does it?

Trust me, the media has not colluded to turn the tide of sports. We aren't that smart.

Finally, it seems people like crossing the line from humorous smack talk to simply being bad people. One Alabama fan asked in an open forum when Auburn was going to replace the oak trees on Toomer's Corner so he could go and poison them again. Just when I thought no one was dumber than Robo-moron Harvey Updyke, this guy comes along. That was not smack talk. That was an attempt to illicit a response from Auburn fans: rage.

An FSU fan posted he could not wait for the season so he could see Bobby Bowden return to the field that bears his name. A Florida fan responded he hoped Bowden had a heart attack and died on the field during the pregame ceremonies. That is not smack talk, that is a lack of class.

Finally, there was a personal attack on me by someone that obviously knows me, but like a lot of these posters, hid behind a fake profile. This person told me he was glad my mother was dead so she did not have to read the (expletive deleted) I write. But he did not stop there. He added he wished she would come back to life so I could watch her die from embarrassment for my opinions. How is that smack talk?

The discussion groups all say they have rules, but I've yet to see many of them enforced.

Again, there are good groups. I have remained in three of them. I am a member of the Sports Rivals group on Facebook. It is the group that was started by the members of the Finebaum group who wanted to discuss football. There are Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, LSU, Ohio State and I've even seen a UCLA fan in the group. There is smack talk among the members, but it is a playful banter. That is the way the groups are supposed to be.

I've also stayed in the Florida State group, Welcome to the House of Seminole. These people had the idea of starting a group dedicated to just one team. They come up with great topics and unlike some of the bad groups, want to know facts instead of just yelling about things. They discuss FSU history, ask trivia questions and the members in Tallahassee share what they have seen from practices. This group is entertaining and informative.

The last group in which I remain is the ACC Football Alliance. Since I am the Atlantic Coast Conference editor at Football.com, I thought this would be a good way to gather information from around the league and get insight into what fans are thinking. I got much more than that. I am currently working on a piece on the best places to eat on a gameday in each ACC town. I've covered ACC games at Florida State, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia, but I have never been to Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina State or Miami. I asked for suggestions from the group and within a day had great tips from all but two schools. These people are a tight-knit group even though they are fans from different teams.

For those who are thinking about joining these groups, here's a little advice. Monitor them for a day before you post anything. If the group seems mean-spirited and you'd like to discuss your favorite college football team, it may not be for you.

But, when you find a group that offers both playful ribbing along with good conversation, join it. They are not easy to find.