By Dan Bernstein —
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) It’s entirely possible that whatever just happened with Greg Schiano and Tennessee football was some kind of unicorn of an event, a complete one-off with no lasting meaning or reverberation whatsoever.
For all of us, let’s hope so.
We can look at the specific elements involved, first. This was a fan base seething with residual anger over a recent and steady decline in on-field success, still laden with entitlement to be alongside conference foes Alabama and Georgia despite no evidence that such a birthright is deserved. The Volunteers are pretty much all that state has, and they boast a 100,000-seat stadium to prove it. Being bad at football hits these fans where it hurts, and they were itching for some kind of emotional release.
Schiano is not just some coach, either, instead a polarizing personality after resurrecting Rutgers with tough-guy tactics, rising to the NFL with Tampa Bay and then flaming out amid locker room controversy and player unrest. Not to mention his noted connection to the unspeakable horrors at Penn State and allegations that he didn’t do enough to stop child rape that he allegedly and reportedly witnessed there.
Then we add in both the tinderbox of social media and the platform of an individual provocateur known for pandering to a particularly ugly seam of followers, and chaos ensues. Those against Schiano for pure football reasons first try to discredit the hire for issues with the Buccaneers in 2013 and then seize on the Penn State testimony when the first salvos fail, finally finding traction there to build to a critical mass that involved both state officials weighing in and key donors threatening to withhold support. And it was over, the hire un-hired within mere hours Sunday.
Forget the fairness debate for a moment, here. It can be seen as a railroading of Schiano for completely unproven hearsay about what he did or didn’t see in Happy Valley, but it’s also reasonable for any school making such an important hire to understand the consequences and the optics, regardless.
The point is that those coming after Schiano were using the Penn State stuff as a Trojan horse for their own ends, not as part of some righteous fight in support of the victims of Jerry Sandusky. And that’s cause for real and difficult questions about how this kind of thing could conceivably happen again.
There’s no limiting factor when it comes to the ability of any person or any group to use social media in a way that twists a narrative, often doing so successfully before we know whether something is even real or true. Remember that all college football fandoms are crazy, in this regard, often defined in such spaces by those farthest out on the lunatic fringes, acting without real identities. It’s just Tennessee this time around, but this whole sport foments virulent and irrational behavior.
Any possible coaching hire can now be scrutinized from the moment a name surfaces, with the richly compensated search firms hired to vet candidates easily outpaced by armies of self-appointed internet sleuths digging for dirt, both real and imagined and whipped up for maximum effect to aggrandize their interests of the moment.
I worry about the dangers of doxxing of real people and family members, concerned that such invasions are too inviting to the most pernicious trolls to not be an inevitability. The power of a populist “victory” against the administration at Tennessee – or just the perception of one, given oxygen in toxic spaces by specific ringleaders driven by craven self-promotion – could embolden other such uprisings, which could take any number of unforeseen and darker turns.
I hope I’m wrong but fear I’m not.