Scandalum ex nihilo: the Internet & Alabama

“Not everything you read on the Internet is true.”—Nick Saban (from his book How Good Do You Want to Be?: A Champion’s Tips on How to Lead and Succeed at Work and in Life)

Nick Saban has been the victim of an Internet hoax or two. In his 2005 book he talks about an Internet posting that alleged Saban had made negative comments about the Alabama Crimson Tide while a coach at LSU. The alleged speech circulated broadly, and ruffled a few feathers. As Alabama’s head football coach, Saban encountered another Internet hoax that made its way into print via a newspaper columnist in Louisiana.

Both instances show the power of the Internet—it is an entity unparalleled in its ability to spread libel, rumor and innuendo.

Most troubling is the Internet’s ability to create trouble from nothing—a creatio scandalum ex nihilo, if you will.

Over the last week, Auburn message boards have been aflutter with charges that Alabama is facing NCAA troubles over recruiting violations. It wouldn’t be a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday without such charges; however, the specific allegation that the University of Alabama had received a second letter of inquiry from the NCAA gained traction on the Internet, and with callers flooding talk radio.

The allegations prompted the Tuscaloosa News to make an open records request over the potential NCAA letter.

This prompted a statement from the University denying any such letter existed. The University and sources within the University denied any NCAA inquiry or notice of allegations. The University also denied disassociating any athletic boosters in the last year, something the Tuscaloosa News pointed out was, again, “contrary to Internet and other rumors.”

Since Pat Dye asserted his suzerainty in Auburn, allegations against Alabama have become louder and more numerous.

Coincidence?

Or is this part of a concerted strategy?

If it is a strategy, Alabama made it easier for baseless allegations to gain traction because of its secrecy in the textbook case. Now every senseless rumor could be reasonable because not many people know what is going on within the Kremlin, errr, I mean the Politburo, errr I mean the Capstone.

The recent spate of recruiting rumors showcased how the Internet and talk radio can spread false allegations about Alabama. The number, specificity and persistence of the rumors tend to indicate it was akin to an old whispering campaign to undermine Alabama’s successes of landing another top ranked recruiting class, and having its annual A-Day game televised on ESPN.

In political campaigns, the GOP and Democratic Party email out talking points on a daily basis; these emails serve as a blueprint for how rank-and-file party members can spread the larger party message on talk radio, letters to the editor and online. Football fans operate in a similar, though less efficacious manner. Without the need for any instruction, fans who read Rivals or Scout or similar type message boards, will spread the latest slander as fact—all it takes is a plausible slander, and someone with some connection (even a fantasy connection) to the school’s insiders as the originator/poster.

Internet rumormongers have been known to go so far as to subscribe to rival message boards (like TiderInsider.com) and post messages alleging problems. This planted message is then repeated on other sites, where the poster can easily preface their rumor by saying, “I just read on Tider Insider that the NCAA is looking at the type of toilet paper being used by Alabama athletes!”

But a more pernicious problem is how fan sites like Rivals and Scout fuel negative stories about the competition. Last year at the SEC Media Days in Birmingham, I watched as an Auburn Internet site used every opportunity to ask questions about off-the-field troubles at Alabama. It was a powerful way to shape coverage of Nick Saban’s and the Alabama players’ day in Birmingham.

Why would an Auburn site ask negative questions to Tide players? Why quiz Antoine Caldwell on the matter unless you are playing to your base?

It was the Auburn corporate message on display at SEC Media Days—it attempted to paint a picture of an out-of-control Alabama and a firmly in control Tommy Tuberville. It was PR at work; it was PR enabled because the Auburn beat reporters display an inordinate amount of groupthink—there are only a couple who stray from the corporate line, while the rest feed the sheep.

Why would fans be any more responsible than these “professionals?”

They wouldn’t be. Saban in his 2005 book warned about how “communication without accountability can be dangerous.” These dangerous effects include damage to reputations and harm to recruiting, according to Saban.

Is it coincidence or concerted strategy? If it isn’t a concerted strategy, it probably should be. With millions on the line, not to mention pride, it would be naive to ignore the Internet as one theater to wage war on Alabama and Nick Saban. How does Alabama respond? The open refutation of the rumors was a positive, and necessary step this time. But does Alabama have a long term strategy for dealing with the significant amount of Internet lies?

Note: I wanted to thank Eight In the Box for an insightful discussion that got me thinking once again about the rumors in light of the Internet and journalism.