"Thanks to the rise of social media, news is no longer gathered exclusively by reporters and turned into a story but emerges from an ecosystem in which journalists, sources, readers and viewers exchange information."
- The Economist, July 7, 2011
By now you may have read the story about a high school football player in New Jersey named Yuri Wright. If you have, that's pretty impressive because Yuri Wright's story has come to light at a time when there are so many Super Bowl and Joe Paterno news stories as to black out the sun, or at the very least, create a total eclipse of any high school football story, and especially the Yuri Wright story.
If you haven't read about Yuri Wright here is the deal: A high school football player at an all-boys Catholic high school in New Jersey, which happens to be a national football powerhouse, uses Twitter to publish his daily thoughts. Along the way the football player tweets a string of racist, sexist, and graphically explicit messages, which his high school deems to be so inappropriate they expel him from school before he completes his senior year. This story has become somewhat of a national news story because, I believe, Yuri Wright is a 4-star recruiting prospect and several big time schools that were recruiting him got wind of his expulsion and his crude and offensive tweets and rescinded his scholarship offer. Most notable among those schools is Michigan, but they were not alone.
However, not every university rescinded their offer of a college education to Yuri Wright. In fact, just yesterday Yuri committed to The University of Colorado. Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated wrote about all this earlier this week attempting to, I assume, turn Yuri's story into, more or less, a cautionary tale for prospective recruits about the dangers of tweeting distasteful things. Staples, of course, writes for big corporate media organization and so it is not completely surprising that his slant on the Yuri Wright story represents the point of view commonly espoused by powerful institutions. As Staples wrote:
"Wright committed to Colorado this week. This is not a reason to rip Colorado. Wright didn't commit a crime, after all. Still, the words we type have consequences. The maintenance of my own Twitter feed is not a job requirement, but SI would fire me in a heartbeat if I began unleashing streams of profanity on Twitter. My Twitter feed reflects my personal opinions, but those opinions reflect upon my employer."
Of course Yuri Wright does not work for his high school. He's not employed as a football player (per se) at his private high school, although I guess he might have been there thanks to some sort of financial aid package that was a consequence of possessing above average football prowess. The point is, Staples and others who've made note of Yuri Wright have all contextualized his story in a rather predictable way: Student makes haphazard use of social media and needs to learn to keep his offensive thoughts to himself because words that offend have serious consequence. And all that is well and good, but does little to try to understand the larger picture.
I happen to agree with Andy Staples that Yuri Wright is worth writing about but not as a lesson to football recruits to keep your twitter shut, but as a case study in what is a clear-cut generational difference between 17-year-olds who have grown up in the age of super-saturation as well as democratized media, a 24-hours "news" cycle, and an ever expanding internet readily available at a moments notice on smart phones, whereas their 50-year-old counterparts grew up in an America where the media was a tightly controlled corporate owned item for consumption and one of their most tightly controlled products was the national and local nightly news, and personal communication occurred face-to-face or over rotary (and later on, touch tone) telephones.
Let me first say that I find what Yuri Wright tweeted to be thoroughly revolting and embarrassingly stupid. Let me also say I do not excuse his tweets as nothing more than pumped up youthful macho boasting commonly found inside a high school football locker room, because even though male locker rooms are notoriously a locus for foul language and slurs we cannot excuse the words. He needs to be taught a lesson and I support what his high school did by expelling him. But I also think he deserves to go to college, even a reputable college, and he deserves to play football and become a much more mature, intelligent young man who will one day (if he hasn't already) look back on his tweets with enormous regret. Ultimately though, I find the Yuri Wright story a compelling topic because he is caught in the middle of a time warp. Public life is changing and has been changing at a pace that seems breathtaking to anyone who grew up side-by-side during a period that included pagers, cassette tapes and the Walkman. Since that time Americans have been forced to rethink issues of privacy, of socially acceptable behavior and the role of electronic communication in all this.
The Youth Will Be Served
When I was 17-years-old I had some very stupid, adolescent thoughts that resided in my head. I wasn't alone, I'm sure. To untangle those thoughts I rarely sought out my parents for advice and consent, even though dozens of poorly acted after-school specials encouraged me to do so. Knowing my parents then (and now) that might have led to some even more stupid thoughts. But I would, however, happily drink in the lyrics of music groups whose music I admired to help me make sense of thoughts and ideas about topics as diverse as love, gender, power and authority, war, nuclear power, and religion (to name a tasty few). Parents and adult institutions at the time knew kids did just as I did and they tried their best to censor certain music groups, block music albums from seeing the light of day and eventually this happened.
In retrospect, with the aid of time and experience, I realize now that Johnny Rotten was maybe not always the best source of advice. But, the truth is this was how many 17-year-olds thought at the time (and still do of course). One difference between 1980 and the time of Yuri Wright is that in my time no one outside of my immediate circle had access to those twisted, mangled undercooked thoughts inside my head. I didn't keep a journal or diary but if I had I'm not sure how many people would have been able to (or cared enough to) read it. Probably not many. I'm reasonably sure of this though, had more people had access I would have been even more disliked than I already was by those who disliked me. But I also might have had some people influence me in very positive ways. Instead of taking years to figure some things out it might have only taken me weeks. But that may be an oversimplification. My point is this: my generation and I will assume Andy Staples' generation and certainly the generation of most men who run college football programs was a far more private one.
As a very anecdotal example, consider the following. When I was 17-years-old there were these things known as telephone booths and in more than a few cases they looked liked something out of the future, but were very much something out of the past...
...and inside those booths you had privacy that allowed you to speak to others without the outside world overhearing your conversation. They also were effective at walling out the occasionally distracting noises of public spaces. They're all gone now and today's generation, I would think, cannot really relate to the reason why such a contraption ever existed. Just as many of today's teenager cannot relate either to the kind of fear that often exists among older people of the thought of a semi-public communication of a tweet.
"It is now acceptable to say almost anything, about almost anyone, in a public space, and for no reason whatsoever. There is no line to step over, because such lines no longer exist. And I think those boundaries disappeared the moment people really, truly lost the fear of getting punched in the face."
- Chuck Klosterman
Chuck Klosterman suggests that we live in a time of "social overconfidence" that comes with technology such as Twitter, Facebook and the like, all of which insulates one from the fear that previously came before the advent of that technology and that might be a solid explanation for why Yuri Wright felt comfortable tweeting what he did and Andy Staples, to his credit, more or less suggests the same thing. I agree that for the typical 17-year-old with a Twitter account there might exist, as Klosterman suggests, a fair amount of social overconfidence but that is a term derived (however smartly) by an older man who is from an older time.
I feel it too. For example, I've never wanted or felt comfortable using my real name here at BHGP. I never once considered Match.com. I still look for a private space when I speak to anyone on my cell phone. I realize in the context of this time in human existence, that's silly and I realize that increasingly I am in the minority and I really, really wish I did not feel the way I do. It's a struggle for me to use Facebook. In my profile picture I am barely recognizable to even my own wife. But here's the rub, I had, for almost 20-years a professional obligation to "get over it" when I worked directly with students at a major university, and I did. While I never really totally embraced the contemporary views of privacy within my own life I certainly learned not to judge young people for their views of privacy in theirs. I made a conscious effort to accept the viewpoints of young people on the whole matter. And for one simple reason, because when I was a young person that's all I wanted from the adults around me, a sincere effort to understand and accept my world.
So, Yuri Wright is a very compelling story for me. As I read Staples I found myself asking, "Why is Colorado using a scholarship on this guy?" The cynic out there will say the struggling Buffaloes are leveraging this situation to get a player they would otherwise never get and crossing their fingers in hopes he's not a thug. And, frankly, I could see that. But if you work at an institute of higher learning you know that this is what all colleges and university do as a result of the admission process all the time. Kids apply to colleges and they publish their accomplishments in their application (nowadays many kids use the "Common App" or a common application, meaning even in the world of college applications kids today have to assume a more public persona) and admissions teams evaluate those accomplishments and try to determine if an offer of admission should be awarded. Then, if they do and the kid accepts, when the kid arrives on campus you hope they turn out to be a worthwhile risk. Because, at the end of the day, that is exactly what the admissions process is: a game of risk. You never know when you may be inadvertently accepting into your community a criminal waiting to happen, a student whose failure is almost assured, a square peg into your round hole. You just never know.
I've read over a thousand college applications in my day and after about the 100 mark I realized two things: this is too much power for any one person to have (or even any 10 persons or 20 for that matter) and every applicant looks different and the same simultaneously. Kids whose success I thought was absolutely certain, a guarantee, failed out. Kids whose admission I thought was a supreme roll of the dice graduated near (and in one case) the head of their class. Sure, our admissions office had sophisticated computer programs that was supposedly able to improve the quality of assessment of our incoming classes, but the company who sold us that software only made that claim in terms of looking at tens of thousands of applications. But I was often sent the application of those students who fell right on the line, and asked for an opinion one way or another. It was, in the end, an impossible task. I might as well have turned them all over and shuffled them and grabbed the lucky application and sent it back with my full support. My point is, when you look individually at people they become infinitely more complex and when you're talking about young people, forget it, anything is possible. Which brings us back, again, to Yuri Wright.
Yuri Wright made a mistake. He may not realize that right now but his words were hurtful and should not be tolerated. But his words have become enormously public, more public than I think he ever imagined in his wildest dreams. He used privacy settings on his Twitter account that he thought would limit his readership to only those he approved. And perhaps he thought he could trust those he approved to use their discretion (for lack of a better word) with his words. Perhaps he thought this was all a big joke and so he never cared just how private his words would or would not be. Maybe he's a deeply insecure kid who's massively inexperienced about sex, race, sexuality and Twitter. Whatever the case, he's more complex than we are able to see and The University of Colorado might just be thinking this is what we do, we take risk and then go to work making young people smarter and more mature.
Go back and read the quote I offered up by Andy Staples though, because his ultimate point is in there and it is shared by a ton of people his age and older and may be shared by you, right now. He says if he wrote the things that this 17-year-old high school football player wrote he would be "fired." In other words, Yuri Wright should have known better and someone needs to punch him in the face.
Well Andy, I am almost certain your message of hope is lost on any recruits who maybe you hoped to influence with this piece because no mature minded person should, and certainly no adolescent would expect Yuri Wright to possess the wisdom and experience of a seasoned journalist with a college degree and perhaps several more decades of time on earth, and it's apparently lost on you that he's a product (unfinished as he is) of this time, and that you are too, which accounts for your lack of effort to explain or bridge that gap. Your advice to the Yuri Wrights of this world is essentially dead on arrival because the standards you've put forth in this article are out of touch with reality.
In fact, so out of touch are your standards that I don't think you were ever seriously trying to warn kids of anything. I think you were trying to fire up your base at the expense of Yuri Wright. Just as Michigan may have been doing. And that's your right and theirs. In doing so, though, you make no effort to tap into a more likely reality that Yuri Wright is a confused kid who used his Twitter account like a journal or a diary. More than a few people were able to and decided to read it, in fact he'd approved over 1,600 to have access to his tweets suggesting to the Andy Staples of the world that Yuri's not particularly discriminating editor but suggesting to me he's desperate for attention. He of course didn't try to stop them from reading it either and probably wanted, even, a good many of them to read it. And the feedback he's received has been pretty tough stuff. He got himself expelled and lost a few good opportunities to attend some very good universities. And one could completely understand if the lesson he learned, the one you, Andy, are trying to foolishly convey, is that "Hey, if I never had a Twitter account I'd be graduating from high school with all my friends and going to Michigan on scholly right now." Which is not much of a lesson at all. Instead, this kid is going to get a much more valuable and immediate lesson through the instant feedback that is an integral and essential feature of Twitter, and instead of years down the road realizing those homophobic, racist and sexist thoughts inside his head are wrong, he is learning that lesson RIGHT NOW.
But someone, thankfully, is willing to take him in under their wing nevertheless, and try to make a man out him. They may fail. He may fail himself. But that's a risk they're willing to take because -- I hope -- they understand on some level that endeavor is a far more sophisticated task than the one in which Andy Staples endeavored. I wish them the best too. Because I know first hand that when you're able to teach the seemingly unteachable, it is as rewarding as it gets.
N.B.: I don't really begrudge Andy Staples for writing what he did. He's doing his job. I just wish we could see more depth on these sorts of issues than the standard fare we often get. I give Staples credit for making note of this story and allowing me to get fired up about it enough to write this piece.