Harsh reaction follows Hilbert suspension
The national conversation over a five-game suspension of a Hilbert High School girls’ basketball player and the WIAA email on sportsmanship that sparked it continues to heat up.
Multiple media outlets, including ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Forbes, have either shared the story or given their take on it. The two main discussions concern Hilbert’s punishment of April Gehl being too severe and the WIAA’s sportsmanship guidelines concerning cheers and chants being too overbearing.
ESPN weighs in: Analyst mocks WIAA on 'airball' policy
ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas sent a series of tweets Tuesday mocking the WIAA's suggestion that student-section chants such as "Air ball" and "Fundamentals" show poor sportsmanship. One Bilas tweet: "WIAA acceptable chant on FT attempt: 'We cannot in good conscience pretend we want you to make this, but wish you good luck, nonetheless.'
Bilas isn't alone. The WIAA has been taking a beating in the media and on social media.
It's been a conversation close to home as well.
“I’ve been to more than 1,000 games and very rarely have I seen those kinds of chants where you would have to ask someone to leave for the most part,” said Mike Moreau, a former Hilbert athletic director and football coach. “I mean 95 percent of the games that I’ve been at or supervised, it’s all very spirited."
The WIAA, the state’s governing body of high school sports, sent the email to its member schools in December identifying “a point of emphasis for sportsmanship” for the winter months. The email added that the WIAA was concerned with a “noticeable increase” in chants deemed disrespectful to opponents and their supporters. It asked member schools to take “immediate steps to correct this unsporting behavior.”
Some of the examples given by the WIAA in the email are also included in its “Defining Sportsmanship” section on its website (wiaawi.org). Those include “booing of any kind,” “the overrated” chant, the “scoreboard” cheer, “air ball” chant and “fundamentals” chant.
Gehl’s Twitter response to the WIAA’s email included profanity, and Hilbert officials, after being informed by the WIAA of Gehl’s tweet, suspended the Wolves’ leading scorer and rebounder for five games. School officials cited the profanity and said it violated the school's code of conduct.
Moreau, who won three state titles as the head football coach for the Wolves and was Hilbert’s athletic director for 20 years and was involved in managing events that involved every sport along the Wisconsin high school sports spectrum, said he was taken by surprise by the WIAA’s email.
“I mean, ‘Fundamentals’ or ‘You can’t do that’? I mean, who does that offend?" Moreau said. "I was just flabbergasted to see that. I just have a hard time with it."
Xavier High School athletic director Kathy Bates said she agreed with the WIAA’s premise on sportsmanship even if the delivery of the message was a little confusing.
“We strive to have our fans cheer positively for our team, not degrade our opponent,” Bates said. “I have a bigger issue with deliberate taunting of a single opposing player by using one’s name, number and/or mocking one’s appearance.”
Bates said the WIAA email may have been better received had the examples of unsportsmanlike cheers and chants not been listed.
“The aftermath has produced very emotional responses and much misinformation,” Bates said. “The WIAA did not suspend the Hilbert athlete; Hilbert administration did. The WIAA did not mandate what the consequence should be. Consequences for violations of any given school’s athletic code are determined at the local school level. We are not privy, nor should we be, to what factors went into the suspension decision by the Hilbert administration.”
Other high school athletes have taken notice of the Gehl suspension.
Benji Backer, a senior boys’ tennis player at Appleton North, said Gehl should have been allowed to speak her mind to the WIAA unfettered.
“We have free speech in this country to a certain degree; there are certain things that you just can’t say, but speaking out, saying (expletive WIAA), maybe it’s not appropriate, but it’s limiting free speech to suspend her for those words," he said.
“I do think she should have been told to take it down," Backer added. "It was inappropriate. I want to be clear on that, but at the same time there is free speech in this country and speaking out against something that you think is wrong — which I agree with her on — I just think her being suspended is just disgusting.”
Erik Thulien, a former Appleton East golf standout, faced a similar situation at the University of Illinois-Springfield, where he’s a sophomore on the men’s golf team.
Thulien’s team had the best conference finish in program history and Thulien took issue with the lack of attention from the university’s athletic department. He and a teammate sent what he calls “angry” tweets to the school’s athletic department Twitter account.
What followed was a meeting with Thulien, his teammate and the athletic department and, according to Thulien, there was no punishment or suspension and the athletic department made improvements in coverage.
“If the WIAA was interested in making high school sports in Wisconsin more enjoyable and a meaningful experience for all involved and not just shielding themselves from criticism on social media, they would have contacted (Gehl) directly and asked her to meet with them and express her concerns," Thulien said.
“April should not be suspended for what she tweeted; her school and the WIAA should not be in the business of sending the message that criticism of authority is a punishable offense.”
Moreau said that while Hilbert was correct in punishing Gehl for using profanity in the tweet, a suspension spanning five games was perhaps too much.
“I agree 100 percent, she made a mistake,” Moreau said. “She used the wrong language. I think if she would have tweeted in a different way saying the same things, it would have been fine. When you use profanity there has to be some recourse that you have to discipline in some shape or form.
“When I was athletic director, I always looked at the first offense and I try to give the least punishment, because we all make mistakes. I felt as an AD, that first offense was a lesser penalty but your second offense, then it had to be different because apparently nothing was learned from the first offense. That’s the way I look at it. But, yeah, five games is way too much. That’s going overboard for that situation.”
Bates, meanwhile, thinks the WIAA is getting unnecessary backlash for an email that was intended to promote good sportsmanship.
“It is unfortunate that the young lady chose to express her opinion in this manner,” Bates said. “It is unfortunate that she has received a five-game suspension for something that so easily could have been avoided. It is unfortunate that the WIAA is getting slammed because they are promoting sportsmanship and discouraging taunting. It is unfortunate that this situation will be such a hot topic when there are so many more important things in life about which we should all be concerned.”
Bates added that she stresses to the Xavier student-athletes to “use caution with social media" because once it’s out there, it's out there.
“With social media, something can go viral quickly, as in (the Gehl) situation,” Bates said. “Additionally, we continue to remind our students that colleges, universities, the Armed Forces and employers are checking social media of applicants. A vital lesson is to be learned by all is be careful what you say, and type.”
Ricardo Arguello: 920-993-1000, ext. 558, or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter@PCRicardo
Attention the story has received includes:
• Daily Mail (U.K.): High school basketball player suspended over tweet
• The Big Lead: Female HS basketball player suspended five games for tweet
• WTMJ in Milwaukee is featuring the story on the Jeff Wagner show as well as the nighttime sports show: WIAA bans chants; student-athlete tells them to 'eat (expletive)'
This week’s Valley Voices topic
Did April Gehl’s tweet about the WIAA deserve a five-game suspension? Is the WIAA overly sensitive about “sportsmanship” and its attempt to set the tone on students’ chants at games?
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