The pig that roared
Jan. 2, 2008 the day after the Cotton Bowl. Somewhere, the Razorback football team is weeping into their jerseys and bemoaning the newly minted Curse of the Red Legs following a 38 7 drubbing by Missouri.
Even at that, the end should come as a relief. The unhappy exit of both Mustain (to USC) and UA defensive coordinator Gus Malzahn (to Tulsa) and the fan discord that festered in their wake. The like clockwork stories of Razorback players getting arrested, on charges ranging from shoplifting to credit card fraud. Coach Houston Nutt 1,000 plus text messages to That Other Woman. Repeated rumors that Nutt was history. Fans upset and motivated enough to pitch in and hire an honest to god airplane towing a “FIRE NUTT” banner over the stadium an anonymous effort that Nutt eventually called “gutless.” All that, and the eventual firing/resignation/going away party for Nutt, who much to the chagrin of the Nutt Busters came in for a pillow soft landing, handed a $3.2 million severance package (paid for by the private but ticket supported Razorback Foundation) before being scooped up by Ole Miss faster than you can say “Platinum Parachute.” Need I say more? Ears bleeding yet? I could go on if you like. No?
What connects all these sad tales either by way of their sordid conception or the chatter that kept them alive long enough to germinate and spawn into real news is that a very good argument can be made that they all came to us via what might best be called the fan based media: blogs, message boards and sports talk radio. In the last five years, the boards and sports radio have grown faster than the Duggar Clan. In December 2006, less than four years after it was founded, the site logged 12.6 million hits, with visits by over 100,000 distinct computers a month.
Though the message boards regularly feature fibbing, bullshitting and outright lies that would put a Smackover used car salesman to shame, they also where nearly every major story in Razorback football last season broke stories that quickly trickled down to sports radio and (as much as some old school reporters seem to hate it) television and print coverage. That said, if there one truism about public officials of any stripe maybe going all the way back to the time when a few of them lost their heads after a certain “Let them eat cake” remark it that they tend to keep their ears to the ground when it comes to the grumbling of the peasant class.
Those who like the message boards and radio shows say they give the fans a harmless vent for their frustrations, or even go so far as to say they provide a service by policing the activities of UA athletics in a way the old media was too beholden to the program to do in the past. Critics (and there pretty much a dark, crater pocked no mans land between the lovers and the haters) call the boards overly negative, too concerned with the private lives of players and coaches, the refuge of bile spewing loudmouths who hide behind the cloak of Internet anonymity.
There is one thing that unites both camps, however: the knowledge that, for good or ill, technology has managed to amplify what was once the pennywhistle voice of the fans into a foghorn one that many on both sides suspect started the fatal vibrations that finally toppled Coach Houston Nutt.
Beavers said that one of the biggest misconceptions about message boards like his one held by both by lovers and haters is that they are somehow a news source. Beavers has no such pretensions. With the content on his boards 100 percent reader submitted, Beavers freely admits that for every piece of good information on Hogville, there a piece of information that might win you points in a creative writing class, but not in Journalism 101.
Beavers said that while there has always been a very vocal fan base in Arkansas, it took technology to finally bring them together. Twenty years ago, three fans might gather in a Stuttgart coffee shop to voice their displeasure about a loss. Today, the same conversation can be read online by 3,000. Even more important, Beavers said, is the way a story can evolve and grow on the message boards, with posters gleaning details from sources the traditional media could never have reached.
“What the Internet has done is put everyone together,” he said. “Now, a coach runs a player off, and boom, it pops up on the Internet. Then a relative of that player or a friend of that player posts on there, saying, ‘This is what the coach is doing. You never really had that before. The mainstream media, they would have never run that story before because it would have been considered sour grapes. Before, you always got the coaches side of the story.”
Beavers admits that during the last season, the Hogville faithful were mostly negative about Coach Nutt. Hogville, for instance, was where the idea for the anti Nutt airplane banners was first hatched, and where many of the lingering scandals that haunted the program first broke. Nonetheless, Beavers doesn buy the idea that the boards and the radio talk shows they fed into had any bearing on whether Nutt stayed or went, saying that Nutt release was of his own making. According to Beavers, many of those who blame the boards for Nutt departure are the same people who just a few months back were calling the online community a bunch of ineffective cranks.
“You can have it both ways,” he said. Of all the people we spoke to, Jackson put it most flatly: without fan discontent and the new outlets that gave them a voice loud enough to be heard in Fayetteville, Nutt would still be at Arkansas.
Jackson said that though the coaching scandals helped the boards grow in both size and prominence this year, it really the availability of information on the Internet that driving the message board phenomenon. Couple that with posters who spend countless collective man hours scouring the web for details on the Hogs, and you got both a scandal machine and a real force to be reckoned with when it comes to generating news leads.
“With all the information on the Internet, you can find out information on what going on anywhere,” Jackson said. “Late on a Saturday night, if you want to go look and see who has gotten booked at the Washington County Detention Center, you can. You might run across a Razorback player. Twenty years ago, I sure players were getting into stuff all the time, but nobody ever heard about it. Today, it hard to sweep stuff under the rug.”
The true impact of the boards, Jackson said, was most fully felt in March, when a Razorback fan got Nutt cell phone records from the university through the Freedom of Information Act, and discovered that, between November and January 2006, Nutt had made more than a thousand calls and text messages to a Fort Smith news anchor, Donna Bragg (Nutt eventually released a letter to fans saying any allegations of hanky panky between him and Bragg were false). The documents were soon online for all to read.
“The real information was out there for people to look at and formulate their own opinions,” Jackson said. “The traffic on the boards during that time was amazing, because people were either linking to the board where you could read about it, or e mailing the actual documents It gave people access to information they couldn get before. Maybe the paper would have posted parts of it, but here, people got the whole thing.”
While some might consider stories like that a negative for the Razorbacks, Jackson says don kill the messenger. “If nothing was going on up there for us to talk about, there wouldn be anything for them to worry about. The message boards didn make Coach Nutt send all those text messages. The message boards didn bench Mitch Mustain. The message boards didn cause Gus Malzahn to make a lateral move to another school. It all the stuff that going on.”
While Jackson doubts the boards have any bearing on actual game play on the field, he suggests that constant microscope view of the program might well cause the UA and new coach Bobby Petrino to “play things closer to the vest.”
## ## “As to what information is allowed to get out and what isn it going to be their responsibility that the people who get information can be trusted,” Jackson said. “If you do that, and you don allow yourself to get nitpicked on things you say and do, I think it better for the program If you scale back your accessibility, you don have to worry as much.”
As for the powers that be at the university, the only one who returned our phone calls admits that the displeasure of the fans did have an impact. Reached soon after the Jan. 9 announcement that he was resigning as UA chancellor, John White said, “Publicity had a big influence on Houston Nutt decision to leave Arkansas.” As for himself, White said that during the search for a new football coach, he deleted without reading more than a thousand e mails related to the football team.
“Does that mean I indifferent? No, I hired someone whose job it is to make a recommendation,” White said. “I never looked at any blogs, I don listen to the talk shows. My job, I believe, is to make sure I hiring people who are highly qualified to run their organizations. My job was never to be athletic director.”
As co host of one of the most widely listened to sports call in shows in Central Arkansas KABZ 103.7 “Drivetime Sports” with Randy Rainwater Rick Schaeffer has often been on the receiving end of what he calls the unrelenting negativity of the message boards. In sports radio or publicity at the University of Arkansas since 1978, Schaeffer said that the mediums and the fans have changed drastically over the years.
“When I first started, [fans] would listen to rational answers, and their opinions weren pre made so much they couldn be changed,” he said. “You could explain why something happened. Now, I think people pretty much make up their minds before they call you. They just going to say: here what I think about this.”