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On Cooper’s Comment and Apology: Social Media, Echo Chambers, and Networked Publics

This was supposed to be a University of Washington vs University of Southern California preview. But I stumbled across this issue while looking at the Michael Cooper scandal and felt compelled to write about it. For previews, check out the Seattle Times or Everett Herald.

The great promise of the web (after we got over that absurd Y2K scare) was that suddenly people from diverse backgrounds would have a place to share perspectives and engage in dialogue that would otherwise be impossible in daily life given that people often associate with like-minded individuals.

Many people would probably agree with danah boyd and say that grandiose ideal never came to fruition and social media may in fact merely have the opposite effect: creating echo chambers that reinforce the cliques, clubbiness, and narrow-mindedness that people hoped the web could destroy.

Can Social Network Sites Enable Political Action? | Rebooting the System
Most people are simply logging in to hang out with the friends that they already know. The warnings about stranger danger have worked; most people are not looking to meet new people, but to gather with friends when physical co-presence is impossible or impractical. For active participants on SNSes, particularly young people, networked publics substitute for physical publics that have become inaccessible, untenable, heavily regulated, or downright oppressive. If you can’t grab a beer at a pub with friends or hang out in a public setting without being banned or shooed away for loitering, where else can you gather with friends? Online, of course.

Clearly, those are not the kind of social interactions the world needs more of. They don't promote the exchanges of perspective that many of us would argue facilitate a functional democracy. Worst of all, we can all imagine scenarios in which online echo chambers tangibly harm people offline.

However, in terms of how "news" is produced and consumed, are echo chambers really that bad? Consider this point from David Weinberger:

Echo Chambers = Democracy | Rebooting the System

Our picture of the Net as a set of hateful echo chambers is encouraged, too, by the premise that the only sites that matter are those with hundreds of thousands of readers. That’s how the mainstream media works. But the Web is characterized by a "long tail" of sites with relatively few readers. The echo chamber dynamic is facilitated by sites so large that the commenters are functionally unknown to one another, and the way to get attention is to be more outrageous than the previous person. That dynamic is missing on the smaller sites that, in aggregate, constitute the bulk of web traffic.
So, what good does conversation really do in a democracy? It helps us work out differences based upon shared ground. Conversations shape our existing ideas and occasionally generate new ideas that are in line with our existing beliefs. We can probably count the times on one hand that conversation changes our minds about anything important.

The idea(l) here is that in fact echo chambers enhance our thinking because of the opportunity to challenge one another’s ideas while starting from similar premises thus ultimately arriving at better ideas – and ideally eradicating the worst ideas – within our existing belief system. So the value of echo chambers is up for debate and more likely depends on the type of participation.

However, for sports, we may be seeing something slightly different. The convergence of social media and sports media might actually be a closer approximation of the grandiose ideals of knowledge sharing on the web than in politics or mainstream news. What we may be witnessing in sports media is that actualization of "networked publics" in which people from diverse "places" around the web come together and sometimes share divergent beliefs for the sake of mutually enhancing their knowledge of the games they love. The result is not only unprecedented access to sports information, but also unique insights about events that enhance how we experience the games we love and, in some cases -- like the recent Michael Cooper incident – a little bit of context that adds some depth to the soundbytes that make headlines.

The changing face of sports media

A long time ago -- when I was a budding sports fan and I naively followed my beloved Golden State Warriors, unaware of the suffering they would cause me later in life – all of my sports news came from a few local newspapers. In a market like the Bay Area, that means sifting through 2-3 papers for perspectives on the team. Now that has all changed.

FOOTBALL OUTSIDERS: Innovative Statistics, Intelligent Analysis | Walkthrough: What Do I Know?
In 1984, we read the local paper for our news. We got plenty of information on the home team, a few insights about past or future opponents, and AP reports and capsules about the rest of the league. An ambitious fan might subscribe to The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly, maybe a gambling service. Now, we search the Internet and get our information straight from the sources. If we need to know about the Bills, we read Buffalo News. If we want a national roundup, we have a hundred choices.

For sports fans, perhaps differently than civic-minded citizens, the web has expanded the amount of information available to the point where we might still live in geographical echo chambers dominated by our local paper and (hopefully not) sports talk radio on the way to work but we have many additional resources. Yes, we may exist in echo chambers, but they aren’t necessarily impermeable to outside perspective. In fact, having access to the outside perspective provides us with insight that allows us to enhance our fandom.

In 2010, we can scout opponents statistically or by visiting the echo chamber of other teams. We can keep track of our entire conference or division with a few clicks every morning. In some ways, social media applied to sports is actually the democratic ideal that that both boyd and Weinberger see as unattained in politics: for sports fans, the web probably has democratized the flow of information and fan participation. An example is the controversial comment recently made by Michael Cooper.

The Cooper buildup

I am not a LA sports fan, but I was casually following Sunday’s UCLA-USC game in three ways while doing other things: I was listening to it via UCLA’s online radio broadcast, I was checking in on the open thread on SBN’s UCLA site Bruin’s Nation, and I was on g-chat with someone at the game.

Coordinating all three sources amounted to the obvious: there is a rivalry between UCLA and USC and there was some bad blood between the two schools after the USC men’s team beat the UCLA men’s team the day before. There was a pretty good crowd with a number of UCLA fans in the stands, including former UCLA Bruin and NBA player Tracy Murray, according to my g-chat source.

However, apparently not everybody was happy with the mixed company – during the first half, I noticed a comment about an interaction between USC athletic director Mike Garrett and some UCLA fans.

Mike Garrett just told us to sit down
I’m at the game with a bunch of my ucla friends and Mikey just told us to sit down in our seats instead of standing to cheer on our bruins. He looks desparate to get anything to work.

Although it sounded odd, I just sort of chuckled and went on about what I was doing. Then a second comment about Garrett came up.

Jill painter just came over to talk to us
She wanted the story on Mike Garrett telling us to sit. Lol.

I didn’t actually pay much attention to that one because I didn’t immediately recognize Jill Painter as a Los Angeles Times writer, but as mentioned in the thread, Painter did tweet about the interaction.

Twitter / jill painter
USC athletic director Mike Garrett went over to the UCLA student section at the women's game today and personally asked them to sit down.

In her game summary, she mentioned the incident again, adding a bit of pointed commentary about Garrett:

PAINTER: USC women's basketball becomes more confident bunch by hanging with Mr. Cooper - LA Daily News

USC athletic director Mike Garrett obviously had a problem. Garrett made a personal visit to the student section. One student said Garrett told them several times they needed to sit down or he would kick them out because paying customers behind them couldn't see. No ushers needed. The student didn't even know Garrett. They just thought it was a parent.

Who ever heard of students sitting at a basketball game? A game is not the opera.

However, Painter missed the somewhat strange conclusion between Garrett and the UCLA students:

Mikey was laughing at us as we walked out
But we all know well be getting the last laugh when he’s fired after his shady and illegal administration is exposed.

It’s unclear why Garrett felt the need to go over to the students in the first place, but then also rather strange that he felt compelled to extend the interaction after the game with laughter. Of course, we don’t know whether the students themselves said anything to Garrett that prompted the initial interaction nor do we know if the students initiated something that led to his laughter on the way out. That said, it was enough for Painter to take notice.

But that’s not really the point.

I’ve been to quite a few college basketball games in my life and I’ve never seen an AD interact with students in quite this way. It’s odd behavior.

On to Cooper’s comment

So USC wins and, as usual, they celebrate on the court throwing up their peace signs and everybody’s happy.

Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.

And then in the press room afterward, Cooper makes his comment…which I first found out about on Bruins Nation when a commenter mentioned Jill Painter’s tweet:

Another classic $C coach quote...
Courtesy of Jill Painter’s twitter again:

@jillpainter: Here’s how Michael Cooper started his postgame press conference after USC beat UCLA, 70-63. ``F—- UCLA’’.


Despite all the commotion now, Painter reported laughter from players seated next to Cooper In her game summary.

PAINTER: USC women's basketball becomes more confident bunch by hanging with Mr. Cooper - LA Daily News
It's easy to see how Cooper's confidence can rub off on his players. Confidence turned cocky when Cooper began his postgame news conference with these two words: "(Bleep) UCLA." Corral and teammate Briana Gilbreath, who were sitting by Cooper, couldn't stop laughing. It was one of those no-he-didn't moments.

As I was g-chatting with Swish Appeal photographer Craig Bennett last night, he also described laughter…but from more than just the players:

just got done reading the article on espn where coop apologized for saying "f*** UCLA" in his post game the other night

everyone thought it was hilarious

i guess he had to do the PR apologize thing

i walked over there right after

i got there and people came out laughing and thats when i found out

So, from Bennett’s description it sounds like nobody in the press room was really outraged by the comment – perhaps laughing it off as a little off the cuff trash talk between rivals.

However, UCLA fans did not feel the same way. From the Bruins Nation thread:

Kills me comin from Coop, but clearly he’s drinking the mustard and ketchup kool aid. Typical trOJan behavior – classless. I agree with CafeLA – If any UCLA couch said that I would want him/her fired. Embarrassing…but I’m sure they applaud that behavior over there.

And from InsideUSC:

If this isn't a fireable offense, I don't know what is. At worst, a suspension.

There’s really not much defense for Cooper’s comment about UCLA – clearly, it was unprofessional at best. Granted it was humorous to some, but unprofessional nonetheless.

But obviously, in context emotions were running high and the comment was made as part of larger string of events.

This was a rivalry game. The USC men’s team had just throttled UCLA a day before. And UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel took a shot at newly hired USC football coach Lane Kiffin (whose controversial hiring is a story covered very well by’s story stream). Then the USC athletic director was getting into it with UCLA students.

So Cooper’s comment was sort of a final jab at a cross-town rival as time was running out to get in any legitimate jabs. It’s a comment that would be dismissed as humorous trash talk between friends but is inexcusable from a high profile coach of a university that already has enough damage control to manage.

Poor judgment? Yes. Fireable? Not sure.

And here’s the somewhat humorous element: while Michelle Smith writes that the Pac-10 could possibly take some action against Cooper, who exactly would fire him? The athletic director? The same athletic director who Smith wrote "got into a heated verbal exchange with some UCLA fans in the student section"? Wouldn’t it be slightly ironic for him to fire someone for unprofessional behavior at that same game?

In the end, although Weinberger wrote that "the way to get attention is to be more outrageous than the previous person" online, it looks like this situation was the reverse – both Cooper and Garrett got attention by being successively more outrageous than Neuheisel in this rivalry in real space.

But this post is ultimately not really about Cooper, Garrett, or USC at all.

What captured my attention here was the flow of information via blog comments and tweets, fans and journalists, and the articles that ultimately reported and spread the story. It’s a sports story that more fully unfolds when these different perspectives from observers of the event are shared through different forms of media.

Weinberger wrote, "A democracy needs such "echo chambers," even though their discussions inevitably appear like nothing but a bunch of homogenous supporters rah-rah-ing each other." When those discussions become linked and coordinated through a combination of online and offline interactions, suddenly the "rah-rah-ing" becomes a perspective that adds a little depth and nuance to the developing story. Journalists complement bloggers who complement fans providing the rest of us with a much richer narrative.

The value of social media is not just that it empowers more people to produce knowledge, but also that it allows people and ideas to interact in different ways. With the ability to connect sometimes divergent narratives, the ideal of social media -- that it does have the capacity to enhance or radically change the way we dialogue about the things we care about -- does not seem quite so unrealistic. If people are able to find that information and make the connections for themselves, they become empowered fans, not isolated in a world of their own group think in an impenetrable echo chamber fortress.

The ideal of the web just seems to have taken root much faster in sports than politics, for a number of reasons. So the issue might not be whether echo chambers are ruining the net, but how to build the networked publics that enhance all that "rah-rah-ing" and make it potentially useful for actually sharing the divergent insight that helps us all expand our horizons.