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Social Media Intensifies School Rivalry

Westminster students hold sign at Pace vs. Westminster game. Photo: Fred Assaf

Westminster students hold sign at Pace vs. Westminster game. Photo: Fred Assaf

In a generation dependent on the internet and social media, we have found ourselves turning a sports rivalry into a heated argument. This past month, one Facebook post spun into a thread of intense, and at times acrimonious, comments. Originally, the post by senior Molly Jacoby on her Facebook page was centered around a Westminster student holding up a “Built Not Bought” sign at the Pace vs. Westminster football game on Oct. 8.

For the past few years, opposing schools have accused Pace of illegally recruiting athletes. In the Knightly News’ February 2016 issue, current senior Libby Sams wrote an article about this same topic right after Pace won the GHSA AA Football State Championship. In her article, Libby mentioned Pace being accused of “illegal recruitment, including hostile targeting on social media by other rival schools.” However, by GHSA legal standards, Pace does not in fact recruit their athletes. For Libby Sams’ full story, click here.

After Pace parent and renowned author Emily Giffin posted a screenshot of Molly’s post on Facebook adding her own status at the top, the discussion blew up. In her post, Ms. Giffin highlighted the fact that the phrase “built not bought” can have racial connotation, whether people are conscious of this or not. With over 50 comments from students, alumni and parents from all over the metro Atlanta area, this one post became a central hub for argument around the idea of unfair recruitment and racial undertones the phrase may bring.

Head of Upper School Michael Gannon always tells his students not to hide in the anonymity of the crowd. In this situation, people of all ages were hiding in the anonymity of their screens. Many of the accusations would most likely not have been said in a face-to-face conversation. When a person attacks ideas, real people stand behind those ideas. Therefore, one is not attacking an idea, he or she is actually attacking other people.

“If you’re just yelling out ‘you’re cheaters and you recruit,’ I think that’s fine,” said Pace Athletics Director Dr. Troy Baker. “That’s an attack on me and Coach [Chris] Slade, and I am OK with that. But, when you’re yelling ‘built not bought,’ I feel like that has a direct implication on the kids on the field, and that is the issue.”

Because Pace is a predominately white school in Buckhead with a large percentage of black students on the field, the term “bought” becomes racially charged because it seems like one is implying they shouldn’t be there. “I just don’t think it’s fair to paint everyone with the same brush just based on the color of their skins,” said Dr. Baker. “It goes back to who belongs in the Buckhead area and who belongs at Pace. I just don’t think that is a fair assumption to make about a group of people without even knowing them.”

For some people, Pace’s improvement in athletics seemed like an overnight success. However, it has been a 10-year process. “I’m not sure it’s clear to a lot of people that improvement in athletics was part of a plan,” said Dr. Baker.

When Headmaster Fred Assaf came to Pace Academy, part of his plan was to improve all of Pace’s departments. Before he arrived, Pace’s athletics department was not where Mr. Assaf wanted it to be. In a span of 10 years, he and his team significantly strengthened and improved this department. Pace teams competed for seven state championships in the 2015-2016 school year.

“If only our football team had grown and made it to a state championship and all of our other sports were mediocre, I think that would be a red flag,” said Dr. Baker. “When I look at our program, it feels like every program is getting better.” Pace sent 17 members from the Class of 2016 to college for sports.

This group was not all football players. “You want to look at that group and see representation from multiple sports,” he said. “We were sending girls and boys. We were sending kids to Ivy League schools. We were sending kids to major Division One programs. For me, it feels balanced.”

Still, Pace is accused of recruitment. Why might these accusations appear racially charged? That was a major point of discussion on Facebook these past two weeks. By accusing Pace of recruiting certain students on the field, it makes it seem as if they do not rightfully belong on that team. “I am contacted by families every week from Paris to Roswell, England, Ireland, Africa, Florida, Michigan… expressing interest in learning more about and perhaps applying to Pace,” Dr. Baker said. “We have protocols for how we address those calls. I don’t think people really understand how many people are interested in Pace. Our biggest challenge right now is the selection process. What do you do when you have 15 students applying for four vacancies?”

According to Dr. Baker, the athletics department does not recruit, but they actually struggle to handle the volume of students interested in coming to Pace. “Success breeds success,” he said. “When you’ve got Summer Brown who’s committed to Duke for volleyball and Deon Jackson who’s committed to Duke for football and Wendell Carter who can go wherever he wants, people see that. I think what really takes it up a notch is when they come here and spend time on our campus and meet our people. People genuinely want to be here.”

Dr. Baker is offended by people thinking that Pace goes out to “get” these families, because it makes it seem like they did not have the ability to gather information and figure out that Pace is a great school. “I don’t want our kids and their families in an environment where they feel like they don’t belong here,” said Dr. Baker. “Sometimes it’s very easy to say ‘you went and got these guys’ but I know families who say ‘no we wanted to be at Pace.’”

In terms of student and parent response, Dr. Baker says that continued dialogue and supporting one another is the right thing to do. After over a week of back-and-forth between teenagers and adults, the situation has finally settled down. Pace and Westminster administrators have been in close contact over the past two weeks.