Surviving the Internet's Ability to Make Private Statements Public in an Information Age

I am still frankly amazed at how comments can be taken, and then interpreted out of their context, and spread via the Internet in a matter of seconds, creating a controversy that should not even exist. Truly this powerful medium, which has done so much good and will continue to do great good, can be used for malicious talk and character assassination. Anyone with a computer can say about anything they want and seemingly without personal consequences. I am reminded, as a Christian, that I am responsible for every word I speak, or write, and that I will answer to God. I am also aware that far too many people make far too much out of very little and the Internet feeds this frenzy.

I often remind folks that if Martin Luther were alive today many Christians would consider him crude and a man with poor tastes in both drink and culture. But since he is dead he is a hero to many. He was, like you and me, a mortal. He was also a very flawed but profoundly interesting mortal. I wonder what stories about him would spread and how. Can you imagine his "table talk" appearing on the Internet every day during the 16th century? His enemies had a field day shredding him anyway and all they had was word of mouth and the printing press.

This all came to mind this morning as I read my Crimson Tide news fix for the day. University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban said on Wednesday that he used a phrase considered derogatory by some Cajuns while talking to Florida reporters after his January 4 introductory press conference in Tuscaloosa as the Crimson Tide’s new head coach. Saban issued a statement yesterday that the university released. He insists that while the conversation was off the record, his comments were clearly taken out of context in an audiotape that has spread on the Internet and message boards.

In the audiotape, Saban is heard using the word "coonass" while telling the Florida media an anecdote about an LSU fan’s angry reaction to his hire at Alabama. The fan spoke with a Cajun dialect, and Saban referred to him as "one of those coonass guys that talk funny."

"I was simply using the same wording used by the person who told me the story," Saban said. "The term in question is not language that I use or condone, and I can understand how some would take offense."

The term is considered controversial to some in the Cajun culture. It is regarded as the supreme ethnic slur, but others actually use it as a point of pride. Warren Perrin, president of the Council for Development of French in Louisiana, called the term "highly offensive."

Nick Saban issued the following response to the comments attributed to him that are being circulated on the internet and in the media:

"It was brought to my attention this afternoon that some comments attributed to me are being disseminated on the Internet and in the news media, comments that included wording that can be taken as derogatory by some people. Those comments need to be placed in the proper context, so as to understand the meaning of what was said. The words were used in paraphrasing a story told to me by a friend. I was simply using the same wording used by the person who told me the story. The term in question is not language that I use or condone, and I can understand how some would take offense. However, I think it must be noted that those comments were made ‘off the record’ and the words merely reflected an anecdote that was told to me using that language."

Another Alabama newspaper reported that: “Many Cajuns, including former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, use the word coonass in reference to themselves as a badge of honor. According to the online reference site Wikipedia, working-class Cajuns tend to regard the word as a term of ethnic pride, while middle-and upper-class Cajuns are more likely to regard it as insulting or degrading. Some view it as an ethnic slur, especially when used by non-Cajuns.”

So, what’s the big deal here? The big deal is that Nick Saban is a highly controversial coach because of his recent actions in leaving the Miami Dolphins to become the new coach at Alabama. He is widely hated in Louisiana now because he now coaches their avowed football enemy while he once coached the LSU Tigers to glory. (People from outside this region of the country cannot understand how big this stuff is to so many people.) Saban is right now going hard after high school recruits in Louisiana and this is a challenge to the football program at LSU. National signing day occurs in only six days and this is the big prize for college football coaches. All of this is also part of the game of college athletics, good or bad. (Some is clearly bad and rule changes are desperately needed but the NCAA is a dinosaur in its approach.) But in Louisiana, as in Alabama, this stuff is all taken way, way too seriously.

This kind of atmosphere is the very thing that landed Alabama on a five-year probation and almost ruined their football program. Zealous fans got too involved in recruiting and clear rules were broken, even some laws. In this new case nothing was done that is serious at all and yet people want to make something out of it in order to harm Saban’s reputation before he even coaches his first game. I expect this stuff will continue to happen for years to come thus I hope Coach Saban has the hard-nosed ability to ride it out. Anyone in such a position has to have an extremely tough hide.

The evangelist Vance Havner once said that a real minister had to have the hide of a rhinoceros and the heart of a humble saint. Football coaches in high profile jobs like Alabama need the first for sure. The second never hurts.