Schwartz: Turtle Faces Online Justice

November 1, 2018

Written by David Schwartz

The University of Maryland learned this week what so many have had to learn the hard way.

The Internet, for all its business possibilities, distractions, and other capabilities, reminds us that we cannot act invisibly, even when we might want to.

On Tuesday, Maryland—in this week’s latest blow to the Big Ten’s integrity—announced that it had reinstated head football coach DJ Durkin. By Wednesday it became, “Did we say reinstated? Because we meant “fired.” It was a dramatic reversal by an institution in the midst of learning that what was acceptable 20 years ago is most certainly not acceptable today.

Durkin was accused of running a loose football program that bullied players. The university has already accepted responsibility for the death of Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman who died unnecessarily.

The Maryland Board of Regents, by reinstating Durkin, thought it could sneak one by the public. It thought it could toggle Durkin’s status from suspended to active, that Durkin could be on the sideline this weekend against Michigan State, and that their fans would either not care or approve of the decision.

Instead, many of their fans rejected Durkin’s return. Even some of the players rejected Durkin. But most importantly to this situation, the decision transcended Maryland—transcended the entire sporting world—and inflamed people who had no ties to the Terrapin community.

Which brings us back to the introductory lesson of Internet 101: regardless of the merits of a debate, there can be no escaping online mob justice. We’ve wondered for years about the limits of college football’s ability to operate beyond civil, rational society. Could college football escape online mob justice? Could it retain its autonomy?

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The answer is no—at least not this time. Because the Internet can be a voice of the voiceless, or it can be the voice of those we wish would remain voiceless. Everyone has a say because information travels at the speed of light. There is no mechanism in place to distinguish those who need to speak from those who think they need to speak.

Maryland acted foolishly when it reinstated Durkin. Even more foolish than that action, however, was thinking his return should ever happen in the first place.

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In retrospect, Maryland’s and Durkin’s fates were sealed the moment the university accepted responsibility for McNair’s death, because Durkin during that incident allegedly was in charge of the program. This was before numerous families of current players banded together to say Durkin should never return, and before Maryland won five of its first eight games.

The Internet, we should know by now, smells blood in the water, especially when an institution as large and—apparently—naïve as the University of Maryland acts irresponsibly.

And here lies one of the benefits of the Internet: although there are moments when it needs to be reeled in, it’s sometimes capable of shaming groups that do the wrong thing into doing the right thing. College football is a landscape rife with ethical shortcomings. Maryland recognized that when it made its first Durkin decision and, because of that, thought their decision would have cover. Instead, they exposed themselves and their own lack of judgment.

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Durkin and Maryland are the culpable parties here, but the Big Ten and all of college football has to deal with this latest example of the sport’s lack of integrity. The Terps only did the proper thing once it was forced to do so.

One has to wonder—one has to know—that there were people online expressing anger toward Durkin who had no idea what was actually going on. Bandwagon fury is a trademark of online dialogue. Still, does that matter? In this case, not really, because in the end what Maryland’s irrational decision needed was an equal and opposite reaction of irrationality. That right there is an Internet specialty.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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