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How to spin integrity in a social media world

We often think of intercollegiate athletics as a domain of wins and losses, as a locale of choices that relate only to the actions within the lines. But every once in a while, the humanity of these activities rears its head.

Grant Whybark, a golfer at St. Francis University in Illinois recently ignited a national conversation about a sporting event that few will ever care about again after it dies down off the main page of ESPN. Last week, Whybark double-bogeyed the first playoff hole in a conference tournament, enabling the other competitor, Seth Doran, to advance to the NAIA national tournament that he’d already qualified for.

There are a lot of ways to look at this story. To the sports pursuits, it’s an act of treason. They believe the only way that someone should compete at the “highest level” is to “earn their spot.” To others, it’s simply an act of sportsmanship. By enabling Seth Doran, the golfer from Olivet Nazarene to qualify for the national tournament hurt no one else. It was either miss and allow Doran to advance or play it through and if Whybark won, no one else would’ve advanced to the national tournament beyond himself.

If you’re the institution where it happened, how does this spark an institutional conversation? This is perhaps a once in a blue moon opportunity to highlight not just to highlight the integrity of your student-athletes, but a bigger platform to talk about what intercollegiate athletics are really about. You have to take that opportunity, because they don’t come along often, even if it’s inconvenient. 

It’s the end of the school year in many places, finals are happening or are already over. People are busy and it’s not always easy to find ways to coalesce around rapid topics might not be on the radar. But I submit a few possibilities of how you could spin this for your own benefit:

  1. Your student athlete was highlighted on a national radio show for his integrity. Why not post a link to the interview? If he’s coached before, great. But this is an opportunity to show what integrity yields. A follow-up story on your web site about the act, quotes from a few key people and a larger point about how it’s a reflection of the types of students who attend your institutions and what your core values are.
  2. Find a way to partner with the other institution and share the small window. The real question for many, is how does the other student feel? I mean, does he feel like he backed into a national tournament appearance? Maybe an interview of both together, snap a photo and put it on both institution’s web sites. The short Q&A could just encompass shared values, the camaraderie of competition and understanding the bigger picture. Both of these schools are religious schools, a key selling point for parents who want their children to get more than just a liberal education, but also a set of values that will serve them for life.

The fifteen seconds of fame won’t last long. But it’s likely to boost traffic and send people wondering exactly what your school is about, why it’s there and what sort of people are there. It’s just part of a bigger point of making sure that your web presence speaks to the culture, climate and character of your students, alumni, faculty and staff. You can’t predict when your Hollywood minute will come, but when it does, you need to make sure you’ve put your best face on. 

What’s your take? Am I overstating the value of this spontaneous media opportunity? What suggestions would you have for handling something like this or stories that you can share about similar situations?