On this January night, though, a topic bothered her — even before she learned it was about her. The situation, which eventually cost a coach her job, was a microcosm of all that can go wrong with social media.
Though social networks have been popular for the better part of two decades, current high school athletes are growing up with a relentless array of outlets, including Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. They often sign up for accounts as early as middle school, in some cases with their athletic careers in mind, seeking to gain exposure or learn more about high school programs.
Social media is endlessly enticing for many teens, but it also has the propensity to wound those who use it. And athletes often learn the hard way about the dangers of their newfound fame.
“It comes like a blow to the head,” said Sheri Bauman, a professor of counseling at the University of Arizona. “You may think, ‘Oh, yeah, if I get attention, there’s always someone who’s going to be jealous of that or want to take me down a peg.’ But when it really happens, the severity of it can be shocking at first.”
Reese had dealt with some of the underbelly of social media before. She is interested in modeling and posts pictures of herself in lavish outfits; sometimes, she said, random men message her, calling her attractive.
While that makes her uneasy, she had never felt so personally attacked as the night when she saw what an opposing coach truly thought about her.
The Overtime WBB Instagram account is meant to highlight the talent of women’s basketball players — which it had done for Reese. That praise prompted a user named llsmitty72 — believed to be then-Archbishop Spalding girls’ coach Lisa Smith — to criticize Reese for being volatile and only good because she’s “genetically blessed.” Those comments were sent privately, but Chloe Pavlech, manager of the Overtime WBB account, publicized them, asking, “Why do women try to tear down young girls?”
The ordeal left no winners. It cut deep for Reese to learn she “lacks any humility” in the viewpoint of an adult. And days after the remarks were linked to her, Smith was no longer the coach at Spalding.
Smith did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story but told the Capital Gazette in January that she “deeply regrets” her Instagram message and “fully assumed it would remain private.” She said the fallout of the situation, including a story in the Undefeated, took her comments “out of context and portrays me in a light that is not consistent with my character.”
Perhaps it was a learning experience, too, for Reese, a McDonald’s all-American who knows more criticism could come her way when she joins the Terrapins, one of the nation’s top teams. Though Reese vented to her mom and one of her coaches the night she saw the messages, she was able to brush it off and go to sleep, rationalizing her online critics by saying, “Some people sometimes just want clout.”
In it for the hype
High school athletes, and students in general, have many reasons for joining social media platforms. When Dasean Dixon signed up for an account last year, he was looking forward to joining his friends to laugh at funny posts, and he didn’t believe there would be many drawbacks. Soon, he became irritated viewing political debates and controversial comments.
Social media also was an annoyance for him when it seeped into his football prospects. While proving himself as one of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association’s best defensive linemen last season at Theodore Roosevelt, Dixon didn’t obtain a scholarship offer. Every time he looked at Twitter, it seemed as though a player from a private school was receiving one. Dixon wondered when his opportunity would arrive.
Hoping to boost his exposure and face tougher competition, the junior transferred to Archbishop Carroll in January. The pressure of standing out on social media affected his thinking.
“People get a feeling of dominance when they get a lot of likes,” Dixon said. “A lot of people are seen and famous because of the likes. People will only support the people who are really popular.”
Dixon got his first scholarship offer last week from Clarion University, and now he has attracted a new set of followers and encountered different expectations. When athletes are on the verge of the next level, their actions elicit intensified applause or ire.
Gonzaga basketball star Terrance Williams decommitted from Georgetown in December and stayed off Twitter for three days, he said, to ignore messages littered with profanity. When he committed to Michigan the next month, Wolverines fans packed his mentions with support, allowing him to build a connection with the fan base before he arrives on campus this fall. He felt a new appreciation for social media after being showered with affection.
“It’s just the fan base showing love,” said Williams, a two-time first-team All-Met selection. “They really want me to come to their school. You just got to enjoy what comes of it throughout the recruiting process.”
Though the upside of social media is increased exposure, that comes with a downside of potential embarrassment when an athlete is on the wrong side of fame.
During his first high school game in 2018, Blake offensive lineman Christian Piedrahita had to face Damascus defensive end Bryan Bresee, the nation’s top recruit in the Class of 2020. The Clemson early enrollee was such a dominant force in high school that he could make big, strong opponents look helpless.
That’s how online users viewed Piedrahita when a play showing Bresee grabbing Piedrahita near the shoulder pads and throwing him to the turf made it to social media. Piedrahita was so upset about being teased, he couldn’t watch film of that game until a year later.
“It really motivated me a lot,” Piedrahita said. “It didn’t matter, a lot of people thought it was funny or whatever, but I was just a freshman going against a [6-5, 290-pound defensive lineman] that was just bigger, stronger and faster than me.”
Piedrahita knew stuff like this could happen when he joined social media in eighth grade, but the chance of attracting college coaches was enough incentive to deal with the land mines. Piedrahita also uses Twitter to ask for advice from other players and coordinate workouts.
Twitter provides a community where players can post highlights and statistics, attract college coaches and communicate with people across the nation. On Instagram, many athletes showcase their personality, sharing photos in which they’re dressed in casual outfits and with friends.
It’s all on display for people to gawk at and comment on, typically in friendly ways. So high school athletes often enjoy these interactions and like receiving attention from their peers.
Sometimes, though, it’s easy to forget who’s watching.
Building a program
SMU football coach Sonny Dykes said his staff loses interest in about five or six recruits every year because of posts that include topics such as violence, drugs or disrespect toward women.
“It’s great for us as coaches because we get to learn a lot about our players that we wouldn’t know otherwise,” Dykes said. “You learn what they’re interested in, you learn the things that they like, you learn the things that they are involved in. From that perspective, it allows you to communicate on even a higher level with your players.”
Many high school coaches monitor their players’ social media accounts to make sure the conversations aren’t harmful. Coaches increasingly have another reason to be on social media: to build recognition for their programs.
National Christian Academy football coach Andre Kates posts videos of himself mic’d up during practice, as well as clips from locker room meetings, to provide recruits and fans an inside look at his squad. While Kates has leaned on social media to raise awareness for his fifth-year program, the 32-year-old understands the risks.
In 2010, Kates was suspended from the Indiana football team for tweeting his belief that he should receive more playing time. That incident has followed him into job interviews. He’s careful not to let anything similar happen now that he’s in charge. He keeps his opinions to himself and trains his players to avoid the type of pitfalls that snared him in college. When Kates sees something he disagrees with on social media, instead of engaging, he puts away his phone — because as much as a social media misstep can cost a student, it can be even more perilous for a coach.
After the Spalding coach’s comments about her daughter went public, Angel Reese’s mother, also named Angel, sent a message to llsmitty72. According to screen grabs provided by the mother, here’s how Smith replied:
“I am sorry that you were privy to my message. My intention was never to personally hurt or offend anyone when I sent the DM (privately) and foolishly I never imagined that anyone other [than] the curator would read them. But this is a painful lesson that there are, in fact, real people behind the IG name/account. With that said I regret sharing my thoughts and actions. But moreso I deeply regret that I offended you and your daughter. I don’t expect your forgiveness — I’d likely respond the same if I were you. I do sincerely apologize.”