CATONSVILLE, Md. — Tim Hall’s office on the University of Maryland Baltimore County campus is decorated with sports photos and filled with books, binders and manuals. None of them could have prepared him for the past couple of weeks.
“Growing up, this stuff wasn’t even possible,” said Hall, who is in his second year as the school’s athletic director. “We had to have actual conversations.”
Hall and his department were still reeling Wednesday from a social media scandal that ensnared one of their teams. Members of the women’s lacrosse team were threatened in a series of texts. Practices became too physical. “Take down the coaches,” one player posted on a mobile messaging app to teammates. “Kill the freshman.”
The team suspended five players indefinitely last week, and Hall placed Tony Giro, the team’s co-head coach, on leave from the university Wednesday morning. He will not be returning. Because it’s a personnel issue, Hall said he could not provide specifics about Giro’s departure or explain whether the third-year coach faced previous complaints during his tenure at UMBC. Hall said the school is still reviewing the incident.
“We’re not going to sacrifice thoroughness for expediency,” he said.
Hall said initially he struggled to get arms around the allegations and nature of the complaints that surfaced earlier this month. While bullying has prompted recent dialogues on campuses across the country — especially at middle and high schools — experts say sports teams are already accustomed to many of the symptoms. What transpired and was uncovered at UMBC took place in the digital universe, though, more than the locker room.
“I don’t think this is anything new,” said Justin Patchin, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “These things have happened for generations in locker rooms or dorm rooms. The fact that it’s now taking place in semi-public environments where others can see and hear, that’s sort of a new area of concern.”
In the sports world, cyberbullying cases like this one could be viewed as an extension of hazing. The Internet and mobile messaging apps have provided a new platform for abuse. Psychologist Susan Lipkins said the UMBC case shows signs of hazing because it features individuals trying to maintain a hierarchy by using threats and discipline.
“The way that I look at hazing, the seniors feel they have the right and duty to do unto others what was done unto them. . . . They are hurting their own teammates in an effort to prove who’s the boss, using intimidation so the younger and newer players would not play as well,” said Lipkins, author of the book “Preventing Hazing.”
The culture surrounding a program is what makes such abuse possible. In sports, groupthink is at times encouraged and some players are often treated differently, experts say. Starting with high school teams, Lipkins pointed out, seniors and captains are often given leadership responsibilities that can result in locker room divisions.
But at least one former player said the UMBC program was especially susceptible and nastiness festered long before this season. The team’s previous coach, Kelly Berger, was forced out in 2012 after players signed a petition, upset with the way they were treated.
Madeleine Irwin came to UMBC with high hopes for her lacrosse career but said there was a strict hierarchy in place and, as an underclassmen, she barely felt part of the team.
“For me personally, it was almost like the player that I knew I was didn’t matter anymore,” Irwin said. “My hard work was taken off the table if I didn’t submit to what the seniors insisted I do.”
During her two years at UMBC — she left the team following her sophomore campaign in 2012 — young players were at times excluded, berated or ignored altogether.
“I know college sports can be a rough place, and you can’t sit back and think it’s all sunshine and roses,” she said. “It’s hard work. You’ll get yelled at. It’s going to be uncomfortable. But there’s a line.”
Hall said the hazing and cyberbullying issues that have embroiled his women’s lacrosse program are not unique to his team or school. “It’s a society issue,” he said. “I think it is prevalent in sports.”
Technology has helped hazing to evolve, with social media providing another outlet for players to gather in cliques, vent frustrations and conspire. The immediacy of mobile messaging has removed any sort of time buffer or cool-down period following practices or games.
“Social media is conducive to sort of expressing concern without a filter,” said Patchin, co-author of the book “Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying.” “Since social media is always accessible, if I’m upset, based on a heated moment that happened in a game or a match, I can express that disapproval immediately, without taking time to think about what I’m saying or what consequences might be.”
Patchin said sports might be especially ripe because many cases of cyberbullying feature characteristics of group dynamics, particularly one-upmanship and groupthink.
Hall said the new generation of athletes step on campus well versed in social media and that texting and mobile messaging is a primary form of communication for many. “The proliferation of hand-held devices has created a generation of young people who communicate through emojis and abbreviations,” he said.
Hall said UMBC already conducts educational seminars for its athletes about hazing and social media conduct. In September the athletic department brought in Janet Judge, an attorney and president of Sports Law Associates, who spoke with all of the school’s student-athletes, running through the positives and perils of social media. He said the school will continue to reinforce with athletes and coaches the risks posed by ever-evolving technology.
“But in many respects,” Hall said, “it’s unrealistic to police everything. . . . When you deal with a significant amount of individuals — so 450 student-athletes at a fairly large department — you live by the old saying, ‘It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.’ ”