In November 2001, Ohio State quarterback Steve Bellisari was arrested for drunken driving during the week of the Buckeyes' game against Illinois. News of the arrest broke on the-ozone.net, an independent website covering Ohio State sports and operated by John Porentas, 55, a former self-employed importer-exporter who started his site in October 1996 and calls himself a "web publisher." Bellisari, who pleaded no contest, had been arrested at 2:20 a.m., and the news was posted barely three hours later. "We had no confirmation ourselves," says Porentas. "However, the poster, who turned out to be an attorney, had a link to the Ohio State police blotter."
On occasion the swiftness and reach of the medium surprise even its operators. In fall 2000 Hubbs attended a Tennessee practice and witnessed defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth getting into a fight with a teammate. After the incident Vols coach Phillip Fulmer called together all media at the practice—including Hubbs—and reminded everyone that reporting what happened could result in losing practice observation privileges. "When I got back to my computer, there were already posts about it on our message board," says Hubbs. "Who posted them? a player? a student manager? They all have Internet access, and they were all there." However, there apparently was no reporting of the incident in the following day's newspapers.
Gene Williams, a 37-year-old attorney who runs warchant.com, a Rivals.com-affiliated Florida State site, says, "A little while back some people saw [Seminoles quarterback] Chris Rix eating a cheeseburger in a restaurant. Right away I read a post that says, 'What's Chris Rix doing eating all that greasy food? Shouldn't he be eating healthy things?' It's pretty amazing how fast this moves and the things you see."
Their reporting of negative news has thrust fan websites into the mainstream glare, but dirt is only a minuscule portion of their trade. Most of the sites were founded during the Internet boom of the mid-to late '90s by people with a passion for their teams, seeking like-minded cyberfriends. The sites feature much more talk about coaching strategy and recanting—especially the latter, wherein lie the roots of the entire phenomenon—than about scandalous public behavior. Some website operators are fully credentialed media who enjoy cordial relationships with the schools they cover.
Most site operators try to enforce rules (no swearing, no posting pornography, no libel), and most say that they attempt to confirm news through reliable sources, as the mainstream media do. Yet there is little question that message boards have run out of control, forcing webmasters to hire employees to monitor postings. Rules are far looser when it's a rival school being trashed, and in the end, only so much can be done. "I've taken down posts," says The Dawgvent's Patterson. "But with the speed of the board, if it's posted, it's out there, even before we take it down."
The consequences of aggressive posting can be unforeseen—and troubling. At 9:03 on the morning of Nov. 25, 2002, Texas A&M freshman defensive end Brandon Fails died from complications caused by a blood clot traveling to his lungs. News of Fails's death was posted on texags.com before university officials could notify Fails's parents, who were en route to College Station after hearing their son had fallen ill.
Brandon Jones, 30, owner and administrator of texags.com, says, "The posts [about Fails's death] started in the morning. We started removing those because we had no way of confirming. Later that morning we did get confirmation that he had passed away, so we started allowing those posts. We did not know that his parents"—who ultimately learned of their son's death from the coaching staff—"had not been informed. Nothing like that will ever happen again."
Brave talk. The web world changes by the second. Rest assured, something like that will happen again.