Wednesday, May 21, 2003

So you’ve traded Babe Ruth. Bought a minority share of the Wiz. Signed a contract with Don King.

And now? You’re on a one-way elevator to athletic damnation. Heading down.

Way, way down.

You pass the gluttons (Hello, Mr. Kemp!). The thieves (Mommy, look: It’s Ike Austin!). The sowers of discord (Michael Westbrook, are you wearing a black belt?). And finally, good ol’ Beelzebub himself (Stuart Scott? Boo-yah!).

But that’s not the end of it.

Nope, there’s one more floor to go. A tenth circle in the Sports Inferno. The deepest, darkest, most forsaken pit of them all, a place where fiction is fact, rumor is currency and gossip is seldom — if ever — idle.

In other words, Internet message boards.

Forget the morning paper. Never mind talk radio. For the nastiest, nuttiest — and occasionally, most knowing — sports scoop, look no farther than cyberspace. Try the boards at Or ESPN. Or Yahoo!. Or hundreds of other team and sport web sites.

On public forums and private boards, from anonymous posters and registered users, you’ll see and read the darndest things. Most of it spirited. Much of it spurious. Some of it even sincere.

Former Alabama football coach Mike Price’s wild roll, er, ride? It came from the message boards. Former Iowa State basketball coach Larry Eustachy’s dubious taste in domestic brew? Likewise.

As for some other notable ‘net rumors — like Steve Spurrier becoming the next coach at Notre Dame — well, the truth is out there. Orbiting Pluto. Alongside New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza being gay, Michael Jordan taking the Illinois basketball coaching job and the impending retirement of Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden.

Who, it should be noted, is still in charge of the Seminoles. At least as of last night.

“Oh, yeah, we have to deal with that [rumor] every year,” said Rob Wilson, Florida State’s assistant athletic director for media and public relations. “The message boards are a huge headache. They develop a life of their own.”

Do they ever. Like all vices, Internet — gambling, pornography, online solitaire — sports boards are wildly popular. Popular enough to warrant a feature in last week’s Sports Illustrated. Popular enough that one Washington Redskins board boasts 1,720 registered members and some 1,600 visits a day — and is dwarfed by comparable boards for Auburn, Tennessee and UCLA.

A few weeks back, Chicago Fire general manager Peter Wilt dropped by his club’s message board at The occasion? Wilt wanted to clarify that a developmental player training with Chicago hadn’t actually signed with the club.

Wilt’s visit wasn’t out of the ordinary: He’s a semi-regular poster at the boards, home to roughly 250,000 users. So is D.C. United general manager Stephen Zack.

“Generally, he’s very open and responsive to fan [concerns],” said poster Sachin Shah, who works for a retail consulting company in Arlington and runs La Norte, a team fan club. “Most people on BigSoccer are fairly civil.”

Indeed, message boards aren’t all bad. For many fans, they’re the electronic equivalent of a next-to-the-stadium-sports bar, sans the suds on tap.

On the United board, for example, one list of messages discusses a chartered bus trip to Giants Stadium for United’s May10 road match against the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.

“Is it safe to take my 13-year-old daughter on one of the trips?” asks a poster with the moniker TheFarSide. “While I am willing to accept some debauchery, I don’t think I want to expose her to an ‘Animal House’-style road trip.”

(The answer? Bring the kid, and put her up front — no smoking and no glass is allowed on the bus. Personal-size coolers, however, are OK).

Other recent threads cover trade talk (Dema Kovalenko for Chris Carrieri?), former captain John Harkes’ recent finale and new Barra Brava fan club T-shirts.

Former United midfielder Richie Williams even got his nickname — “ABMOD,” short for “Ankle Biting Munchkin of Death” — on the boards.

“Basically, a lot of us over the years have gotten to know each other on BigSoccer,” Shah said. “I know of at least two couples who have gotten together because of BigSoccer. I’ve been on a date with somebody I met on there. I’ve made lots of friends.”

Shah isn’t kidding: When he moved back to the D.C. area from Lynchburg, Va., early this year, he posted a housing-wanted note on the United board.

“In 20 minutes, I had a place lined up, rooming with a guy I had met at a World Cup party last year,” Shah said. “He had heard about the party on BigSoccer.”

Like sports bars, message boards are also a place to argue, crow and vent. Especially the latter — one University of Georgia site even features a message board dubbed “Dawgvent.”

When Jordan and the Washington Wizards parted ways last week, the team’s message board at blew up. Fans posted more than 300 messages over a 12-hour span, some thanking team owner Abe Pollin, others calling for an organization-wide boycott.

(Our favorite topic? “MJ: Take the Severance!”)

With posters protected by Internet anonymity, things can get a bit uncouth. Bob Ryan-on-Joumana Kidd-uncouth.

Last season, first-year Florida football coach Ron Zook led the Gators to a catastrophic 8-5 record. In anticipation of such a season, was created before Zook had actually coached his first game. On the site’s message board, poster PikeGator notes in a fit of schadenfreude that “as much as I want Zook [expletive]-canned as soon as humanly possible, part of me wants him to hang around and fail over and over again.”

On the Alabama football board, poster Chad4Bama charitably calls the disgraced Price a “pimp,” referring to allegations that the married coach spent a day carousing at a Pensacola, Fla., strip club before having sex with two women in his hotel room.

Chad4Bama then asks if Price, since dismissed, should be listed in the Crimson Tide record book despite failing to coach a single game at the school.

“He was 0-0, but he scored big time!” reads a gleeful reply from a poster named BAMAPERRYs.

John Reagan, a Georgetown alum who runs the fan site, became so exasperated with a series of negative posts involving the Hoyas basketball team and coach Craig Esherick that he deleted the entire lot. He then put up a stern reminder that the site does not tolerate “personal attacks, calls to rescind scholarships or fire the staff, profanity, ad hominem arguments and unsubstantiated rumors.”

While many sports boards are governed by similar rules, enforcement varies wildly. The general rule of thumb? Free, open-to-anyone sites — such as the Yahoo! boards — are more coarse and less moderated than those that require registration or charge subscription fees (usually between $6-10 a month).

“People have to pay to be on my board, put in a credit card with their names,” said Keith Cavanaugh, who runs the Maryland sports site “So you don’t have the flamers. It’s like a private club. You don’t go into a private club throwing drinks and smashing bottles.”

On public and private boards alike, however, trash talk is only part of the appeal. Rumors are the real draw, the crazier the better. Recent news of a possible ACC expansion prompted a flurry of speculation on the University of Illinois fan site — most of it unrelated to the ACC.

One poster said that Notre Dame would now join the Big 10. Another countered that Texas was a more likely candidate. A third claimed that both Texas and Texas A&M were headed to the SEC.

When former Illinois basketball coach Bill Self left for Kansas last month, moderator John Brumbaugh created odds for a list of potential replacements. As a joke, he reportedly included former New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy as a 1,000-1 shot.

A day later, a caller on a local sports talk radio show claimed that Van Gundy was spotted outside Assembly Hall, the school’s basketball arena. poster DollarBills’ not only insists that potential NBA lottery pick Mike Sweetney will return for his senior year, but also predicts the team’s rotation for next season.

“Online, you’ve got somebody who is literally nameless and faceless, who can say whatever they want,” Wilson said. “And the newspaper people have to check on it. So they usually call me. I have to take a lot of ridiculous questions that they’re frustrated to ask and I’m frustrated to answer.”

Not every rumor is off base. When basketball coach Nolan Richardson was forced out from the University of Arkansas, a fan site broke the news. A scandal involving former Alabama football coach Mike DuBose and a team secretary first appeared on the Internet.

Earlier this year, photos of Eustachy drinking Natural Light beer and kissing coeds at a University of Missouri student party reportedly appeared on a Tigers fan site,, long before they ran on the front page of the Des Moines Register. News of Price’s wild night was initially posted on an Auburn University fan board,

On the basketball boards, the recent transfers of guards Tony Bethel and Drew Hall were rumored for months. A local writer who has covered Georgetown estimates that at least two posters on the site have inside access to the school’s basketball program.

Cavanaugh, who has been covering Maryland sports for two decades, said both his sources and subjects read and post on the board.

“Coaches are on the boards because they’re a huge recruiting tool,” he said. “And I would say 50 percent of recruits are on the board, or their parents or uncles or grandparents.

“If their son is considering signing with Maryland, they want to know everything that is going on with Maryland. If there son is a quarterback, they want to know how many quarterbacks are going to be there.”

No topic better illustrates the power — and the perils — of the message board phenomenon than recruiting. Rumors of Bowden’s retirement reportedly were posted by Florida boosters, who were trying to dissuade recruits from signing with instate rival Florida State.

Anonymous message board smear campaigns are commonplace, said an assistant football coach in the ACC, with boosters and coaches attempting to woo prospects by discrediting opposing schools.

A hotshot running back who is considering Maryland, for example, might change his mind after reading on a message board that the Terrapins are switching to a pass-happy attack — or are recruiting three other blue-chip runners.

“I’ll actually have fans of other schools that will join my site,” Cavanaugh said. “They might be a Syracuse fan, but they’ll pay $9.95 a month to be on top of everything that’s happening and to post falsehoods. Just in case those recruits are checking on the boards.”

Sometimes, the misinformation flows the other way. Consider the case of Travis Tolbert, a football player from Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y.

A 6-foot, 185-pound safety, Tolbert runs an unremarkable 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He struggled in the classroom. His coach, Bob Campese, labeled him a “JUCO or Division II talent at best.”

Nevertheless, Tolbert took a free recruiting visit to powerhouse Michigan State and was courted by other top-tier schools, including Ohio State and Florida.

Tolbert’s secret? On a number of recruiting message boards, he was touted as a hard-hitting, can’t-miss prospect, a 212-pounder with 4.4 speed and a 2.5 GPA.

That was good enough to dupe a number of national recruiting services, one of which listed Tolbert as a top 100 prospect. Schools followed suit, and the scheme wasn’t exposed until January, when officials at Florida called Campese directly.

“I can see how that would happen,” said the ACC football assistant. “When I was a recruiting assistant, I would check [message boards] basically every day, obsessively, all day long. I had a list of about four or five sites that I would go to, just to see what recruits are saying, see what their interests are.

“But if a school lets themselves get duped that way, it’s their own fault. You always have to take these things with a grain of salt.”

Or a pillar. Still, message board material has a way of bubbling up from the tenth circle of Sports, um, Hades. No matter how absurd it sounds.

Before the 2000 national title game, Wilson was forced to dispel an Internet rumor that star Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke had suffered a bizarre, self-inflicted hand injury.

“That’s the best one we’ve had,” Wilson said. “The week of the championship against Oklahoma, there was a litany of e-mail things that Weinke has sliced his hand open, that he had 16 stitches. And he was sitting here right in front of me, fine.”

Wilson sighed.

“I know for a fact that some of these messages are planted just to cause other schools problems,” he said. “But by the same token, you can’t discount them, because one in 10 turn out to be true.”

• Staff writer Barker Davis contributed to this report.

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