Friday Night Lights, Camera, Controversy

Texas. The patron state of high school football. The state that boasts multi-million dollar stadiums that NFL teams would want to play in. Friday night lights finds it home in Texas, but unfortunately so does scandal and controversy.

Two high school football players from John Jay were seen blindsiding a referee during their game on Friday Sept. 4. Below is a video of the hit uploaded to YouTube.

Truthfully, it is difficult to watch the clip and not assume the worst. Both angles show the players spearing the referee and even the opposing player throws his hands up in confusion.

In the days following the release of the video, news outlets ran with the story. Like the one below from Good Morning America.

News networks all over the country were having a field day. One headline read “Texas HS Football Players ‘Targeted’ and ‘Blindsided’ Ref, Police Say.”

Within hours of the video emerging online, allegations flowed out – some said the players hit the referee because he was saying racial slurs to them, while other sources claimed the players were instructed by a coach to hit the referee because he was making poor calls all game against John Jay.

The question I ask is how does an isolated event such as this suddenly become national news?
I believe the camera, public perception based on the news and the way the school dealt with the event are crucial factors for why the story received national attention.

First off, as a precursor, I must note that people love videos like this. There are entire channels on YouTube devoted to “fails” and hard football hits. So, I am not surprised that people shared the video all over social media as soon as it published online. I think the content of the video and probable buzzwords in the title sparked public interest and eventually caught the eye of a journalist scrolling through his/her newsfeed. I also want to say that I have no problem with this scenario. I do, however, take issue with the way the news put the video into theoretical contexts and stories before all the details came out.

That being said, I am usually very skeptical of video as the sole source of information for any story. The camera lends a very narrow perspective to an otherwise complex story. Video can be an effective tool of truth-telling, but it can also be deceptive in its content and how that content is used. And a story like this, with three days of no official comments, created a perfect environment for predatory journalists and viewers to sew several angles and theories to the story.

As a result, the football players were immediately made out to be villains for their actions – and why not? Video evidence is considered conclusive. We have a natural tendency to trust what we see. I believe we have this mindset because historically, we actually could trust video as concrete evidence. However, according to Grant Fredericks of “Evidence Technology Magazine,” the transition from analog to digital video evidence forces us to have be much more critical of what we see. Digital videos can be Photoshopped or cropped any which way and therefore are more difficult to accept as hard evidence.

Secondly, industry standards (should) dictate that a journalist’s chief objective is truth-telling. They have a responsibility to their audience to be transparent and allow them to make the judgment call. However, I believe the exact opposite happened. As shown above in the Good Morning America segment, the man showing the video, T.J., does very little to remain objective, and instead says “you would be hard-pressed to call…[this] an accident” and “it appears intentional.” If T.J. was describing the incident with only words I think what he said was ok, but the combination of the video and his words make for incrimination rather than an update on an incomplete story.

Lastly, with everything that transpired, I do not like the way the school dealt with the situation externally. From the news pieces I saw and read, the school seemed very passive and avoided the media. Suspending the players seemed to me the school’s way of washing their hands of the situation. Not to say they should not have suspended the boys, but the lack of communication with the public and media coupled with not taking any other actions made the suspensions a weak move in my eyes.

Another important thing to consider about this story is that the incident happened on a Friday. Students were out of class until the following Tuesday and the school was closed and unable to make statements. This gave the story plenty of time to fester and grow – letting people form speculations about what really happened because, again, the video only shows the hit and none of the events surrounding it. Not until Sept. 24 did the truth finally come out. John Jay assistant coach Mack Breed ordered the players to hit the referee.

As an aspiring public relations specialist, I feel the situation should have been dealt with much quicker. The day after the video surfaced, I would have had the school administrator make a prepared public statement with a Q&A to quiet the media and give them time to sort out the facts. I think had the school made a statement – instead of the district’s generic response to investigate the incident – the news would not be able to make as many speculations throughout the weekend. Thus making the situation less foggy and open to interpretation, so to speak. Then, the school should have worked to get ahead of the situation and eventually find out the truth about the assistant coach. I am sure if the administrator’s spoke with the students they would have found out the truth considerably sooner than the journalists.

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