Message Madness

Robert Chernak, the senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services, has a job that oversees hundreds of University employees that range from athletics to admissions. Chernak answers to University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, but at least twice in the last year, he has answered to someone else: anonymous posters on a college basketball message board.

When a Feb. 18 Los Angeles Times piece about GW’s tuition was linked on GWHoops.com, a popular Colonials message board, Chernak – using the moniker “senior vp chernak” – said the article “ignored” GW’s fixed tuition plan, characterized GW’s tuition as “expensive” and wrote that feedback from families about the increase has been “positive.” He posted on the site to correct “misinformation,” something he did last year when The Washington Post and New York Times published stories that called into question the academic history of former GW basketball player Omar Williams.

Chernak’s audience on GWHoops, a Web site he said he only checks on occasion, was anonymous. Many, including the board’s proprietor Steve Hadley, suspect that posters – as they are called on the site – include some University officials, current and former GW basketball players, athletic department donors and students.

The board, which gets anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 hits per day, has covered nearly every aspect of life here in Foggy Bottom, but most of the scrutiny centers on the men’s basketball team. Several thousand people per day look at the site to analyze every move of head men’s basketball coach Karl Hobbs, his coaching staff and their 14 basketball players. More alarmingly, the board keeps tabs on a handful of high school basketball players that may be considering GW. The Web site, and hundreds of others at some schools with Division I athletics, illustrates the influence of the Internet in college athletics. It gives a once-voiceless fan the vehicle to anonymously criticize and act as an expert on athletic administration.

Chernak’s habit of occasionally glancing at the board illustrates how important anonymous commentary has become here and at other universities. Criticism from fans who largely would not have the vehicle to speak to administrators is heard with no name attached and few repercussions.

“Criticism on chat boards should be interpreted with thick skin,” Chernak said in an e-mail. “It is sometimes useful to know what fans of GW basketball are thinking, but this fact in its own right certainly is not the driving catalytic factor for decision making.”

In fact, Director of Athletics Jack Kvancz and Hobbs, two of the most visible figures in the athletic department, said in separate interviews that they never read the boards and put no stock in their contents, largely because posters are not required to register or identify themselves. Kvancz said he hears of the content from other administrators and boosters who call or e-mail him. Hobbs said he ignores most college basketball sites, including professional recruiting sites.

“I don’t care what they think,” Hobbs said of the nearly 400 die-hard fans who post on GWHoops. “All I care about is the product that’s being put on the court and how the guys are playing and winning. All I care about is winning. I don’t care about anything else.”

“Write me a letter, sign your name and I’ll respond,” Kvancz said of the site. “Otherwise, I can’t care what you say.”

But one GW basketball player did care and let fans know it. Danilo (J.R.) Pinnock, a former standout here, was violently criticized for leaving GW before beginning his senior year to support his two children. Hadley removed the thread, something he rarely does. Pinnock said that most GW men’s players loathe the site.

“I hated seeing what they wrote on (there) and then having to shake their hands or sign autographs for their kids,” Pinnock said in an e-mail to The Hatchet in December. “I feel that a lot of people feel that we owe them something and we don’t.”

Hobbs forbids his players from posting on the site and encourages them not to read it. Kvancz said that if it was discovered someone in the athletic department was posting information they gathered at work, he or she would be fired.

The commotion over this Web site is something Hadley said he never expected. The site started in 1995 as a place to post information about recruits. As the site expanded, Hadley was urged by many of the site’s faithful users to include a message board. In the 10 years of its existence, GWHoops has gone from receiving 300 hits to upwards of 10,000 a day. Hadley said he tries to alert the coaches to the negative nature of GWHoops by sending incoming coaches an e-mail when they are hired. Mike Jarvis, Tom Penders and Hobbs all received that message, but Penders was the only coach to reply.

Hadley said despite the site’s rampant criticism of the basketball program, it keeps fans interested in the team.

“If Hobbs complains about things like not being on TV, or having a little arena, or bad facilities or having a townhouse too small to bring recruits to, these are the people you are going to get that stuff from,” Hadley said. “So if they’re not interested in basketball, they don’t have a reason to stay interested in basketball, then Hobbs doesn’t have a reason to stay at George Washington.”

Despite his hesitations and lack of interest in the site, Hobbs said he’s encouraged that there’s interest in his team.

“I like that. I just want to make sure they come to every game,” Hobbs said. “If you’re going to write about it, I hope they come to every game.”

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