Hazing scandal raises debate on Web ethics

Libby Nelson

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For BadJocks.com founder Bob Reno, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Reno’s Web site, which describes itself as a place “Where ‘Cops’ meets ‘SportsCenter,'” features athletic misbehavior ranging from Little Leaguers to professionals. The site made national news when it released photos of alleged hazing by the Northwestern women’s soccer team, and later accused 12 other schools of hazing.

But releasing the photos, which appeared to have been posted on the Internet by a freshman on the team, raised discussions not only about NU’s hazing policies but also about the Web site itself.

Reno said his inspiration for BadJocks.com came from sports talk radio in 2000, when crimes at the hands of professional athletes were perpetually discussed in the media.

“It made me wonder if there was a Web site dedicated just to bad behavior in sports,” he said. “I didn’t see anything that matched the picture in my head.”

Reno assumed the site would cover much of the same territory as sports talk radio – the antics of professional athletes – but he discovered that readers were interested in the “minor stories”: problems with athletes and coaches from elementary school to university teams.

Reno said had few opportunities to break stories before he came across the NU soccer team photos on Webshots, an online photo sharing community. One of his regular readers had been searching for initiation photos and sending what he found to Reno. The reader also sent photos to university presidents and student newspapers.

Reno located the source of the images and, while looking for photos relating to the alleged rape committed by Duke lacrosse players, found photos of the NU women’s soccer team initiation on Webshots.

“Despite what some people believe, I wasn’t looking to get Northwestern,” Reno said. “I came across thousands, possibly tens of thousands of similar pictures.”

Reno said BadJocks.com does not have an ethics policy on publishing photos like those of the soccer team, where team members’ faces were clearly visible and the original captions were reprinted, sometimes with names.

For Medill professor and former dean Loren Ghiglione, the BadJocks.com controversy raises questions about students’ online behavior and what constitutes a public forum.

“I think it goes to the question of understanding what is private and what is public today, ” Ghiglione said. “Students don’t anticipate what is said or posted (online) will be made public. I think everything is likely to be public in this world. Reno has built a business around precisely this kind of material, and he obviously goes looking for it.”

In response to the release of the photos and the ensuing media coverage, Ghiglione created an electronic forum for History and Issues of Journalism students on Blackboard. The discussion, mandatory for all students enrolled in the class, focuses on the ethics and issues involved with the hazing allegations.

“By creating such pointless scandal … Reno is working for himself,” Medill freshman Catherine Ross wrote, adding that visits to the Web site generated more revenue for Reno.

Reno’s site features heavy amounts of advertising, and he said hits have increased since the NU story was released. But he said he does not maintain the Web site for financial gain.

Reno said he publicized the photos directly instead of sending them to NU because he thought the pictures were more powerful than a university statement. He said he notified the athletic department before posting them but did not comment on any correspondence he had with them.

Assistant Athletic Director Mike Wolf declined to comment on the school’s relationship with BadJocks.com.

“It does appear that (the university has) done what they’re supposed to,” Reno said. “They do need to complete an investigation. But I’m not here to tell the universities what to do.”

Reach Libby Nelson at libbynelson@northwestern.edu.