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It’s Not What It Was, It’s What It Looks Like

“The message has been interpreted in ways we absolutely did not intend, and we have removed it from our channels.”

This was a tweet last Thursday from the Ohio State athletic department. The football team’s account had previously shared a graphic prior to facing Penn State on Saturday highlighting the word “silence.” The intended message was aimed at silencing Penn State’s home crowd. Although Ohio State learned this way too late, that wasn’t the way many people interpreted the message.

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Head coach Urban Meyer was suspended for the first three games of the season based on how he handled domestic violence allegations of a former assistant coach. Courtney Smith, the ex-wife of Zach Smith, accused Meyer of enabling an abuser while attempting to quiet her accusations.

Ohio State highlighting the word silence would be in the same ballpark as Jameis Winston promoting Uber or Manti Te’o being the new pitchman for Match.com. It just doesn’t fit. This is a very important concept to be aware of in sports radio: consider how your messages might be interpreted in ways you didn’t intend.

It’s vital to have foresight. Know what will happen before it happens. A man might have good intentions when he buys his wife or girlfriend a treadmill for Christmas, but he shouldn’t be stunned when large objects come flying in his direction because her feelings are hurt and she feels overweight.

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It works the same way with messages that are delivered daily on the air. You should be able to anticipate what the audience’s reaction will be prior to it actually unfolding. Foresight can save you a lot of time from messes you don’t have to clean up because they were simply avoided in the first place.

If you really think about it, nearly all digital staffers at major universities and on-air hosts are smart enough to know the difference between right and wrong. The most common mistakes are the ones made when the source fails to see how certain messages will appear to be much worse than intended. The intentions get overlooked because of sloppy execution.

If you want an example of sloppy execution and a lack of foresight, look no further than UMass head football coach Mark Whipple. He has been suspended for one week without pay for some comments made following Saturday’s 58-42 loss to Ohio University. “We had a chance there with 16 down and they rape us, and he picks up the flag.” Yep, he actually went there. Whipple believed pass interference should’ve been called, but wasn’t.

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The comments following Whipple’s mishap tell you everything you need to know about how regrettable the word choice was. UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford released a statement which read, “On behalf of our department, I deeply apologize for the comments made by head coach Mark Whipple on Saturday after our game at Ohio. His reference to rape was highly inappropriate, insensitive and inexcusable under any circumstance.”

Whipple also released a statement of his own. “I am deeply sorry for the word I used on Saturday to describe the play in our game. It is unacceptable to make use of the word ‘rape’ in the way I did and I am very sorry for doing so. It represents a lack of responsibility on my part as a leader of the program and a member of this university’s community, and I am disappointed with myself that I made this comparison when commenting after our game.”

There is a line from the movie Street Kings that applies here: “It’s not what it was, Lud. It’s what it looks like.” Whipple described what he believed to be a bad call. That’s what it was. The word he used to described the non-penalty makes it look like he doesn’t grasp the severity of what one horrible word sadly means to thousands of people. It looks like he doesn’t get it. That doesn’t mean it certainly is the case, but that’s a perception Whipple should’ve avoided.

I used to think that if someone had the wrong idea of me, well that was on them. Later on I learned that a lot of misperceptions can be avoided. As a married man, I wouldn’t go to lunch with a female co-worker and then expect people not to assume something inappropriate is going on. Although I wouldn’t disrespect the lovely Christina by cheating, I can’t take for granted that everybody if life automatically knows that about me. Don’t just be aware of the truth. Be aware of how the truth might be hard for others to find based on how things look.

Psychologists often use ink blot tests to gain an idea of the type of person they’re dealing with. If the ink blot is nondescript, one patient might see a stack of IHOP pancakes while someone else sees Chiefs head coach Andy Reid holding a parakeet during Oktoberfest. Our imaginations run wild. If the ink blot looks just like a dog, it’ll rarely be seen as anything else. The point is to be descript with your comments and actions. Don’t leave things up for interpretation. The wrong conclusions can be drawn otherwise.

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Sports radio hosts can learn from the mistakes of Mark Whipple and Ohio State’s “silence” post. Always be mindful of how your message might be interpreted in ways you didn’t intend. The last thing you want is for offhanded comments about serious subjects, like women, race, special needs, or suicide, to be taken the wrong way. If you want to avoid saying, “Man, I didn’t even mean it like that,” then make sure the statements you make can’t be taken the wrong way.