Football

‘Shemy’ Schembechler and Twitter accountability


On Tuesday, Glenn “Shemy” Schembechler published an op-ed in The Michigan Daily in which he apologized for his social media activity. Such interactions — primarily in the form of liking racist and insensitive tweets on Twitter — led to his resignation after public backlash, just two days after his hiring. 

Before I get into addressing Schembechler and his op-ed, I want to make two points very clear. 

Firstly, we shouldn’t mince words. What Schembechler did, in liking tweets that praised the Confederate flag and argued that slavery and Jim Crow were good for Black families, was not merely a tacit endorsement of “comments, philosophies and observations on Twitter that must be part of our past and not our present and future” like he said. It was racist. And secondly, as a white man, I should not — and will not — be the one to say whether Schembechler should be forgiven. That’s not up to me.

But Schembechler’s social media activities and his op-ed provide us with a good vantage point from which we can examine an issue that has become increasingly prevalent, especially within Michigan football. That is the question of what genuine accountability looks like in the Twitter age — and what it looks like is owning up to mistaken beliefs, not just mistaken actions.

Throughout Schembechler’s op-ed, he does repeatedly apologize. But within that apology, he consistently frames the activities that got him fired as anomalies. He describes his social media mistakes as an occasional moral failing and “wayward conduct” that should now be seen as a cautionary tale about remaining careful on social media. And this is where Schembechler’s apology — like so many other apologies seemingly borne out of necessity — misrepresents what social media is, and falls flat. 

By representing his social media conduct simply as a momentary lapse in judgment, Schembechler misses the point. Social media is not a fringe or rare form of communication. For many, especially in the sports world, it is the primary form of communication. And in a very real sense, what you endorse on social media captures what you are willing to broadcast about yourself to the world regarding who you are and what you believe. In that respect, morally reprehensible activity on social media should not be seen as a mere moment that you wish you could take back, but rather a part of yourself that needs to change.

And by deleting thousands of liked tweets and eventually his entire account, Schembechler acknowledged as much. His decision to delete his account (an extension of himself) because there was so much activity that he wished to rescind shows that Schembechler had a way of thinking that needed to change — not just a momentary lapse of judgment he wishes he could take back.

So when he says that his “lifetime of promoting and elevating Black excellence via athletic opportunity,” was threatened “in an instant,” he misses the broader point. His problematic behavior was not just an “instant” that needed to be changed or rescinded, but a broader philosophy that needed, and may still need, to be changed. All of this calls into question his plea for others to “learn his lesson” — which he spends the latter half of his piece emphasizing — because it doesn’t seem like he understands what that lesson is. 

Schembechler seems to think that the lesson of the public outrage and his resignation is that we should all be more careful on social media so we don’t accidentally endorse hateful rhetoric. But the lesson his saga really sent is that people who believe and endorse problematic racial ideologies should not work for the University of Michigan. In his apology, by treating his actions as momentary lapses, I don’t believe that Schembechler genuinely acknowledges that reality. He doesn’t admit that there is work still to be done. Instead, he treats the issue as a blip.

And this is my point: Accountability in the social media age has to be more than apologizing for just your activity on social media. It must be an actual acknowledgment of your own incorrect beliefs that led you to take such actions, along with a commitment to learn about why you were wrong. 

I know that Schembechler, like anyone, is not irredeemable, and I personally don’t think that individuals should forever be trapped by who they were at one point in their lives. I don’t wish any ill will upon Schembechler and I firmly believe that he can change, and that he can grow. 

But accountability in the Twitter age has to start with accepting the honest truth that your misguided actions on social media came from a misguided part of you — not just from a momentary moral lapse. And I think accountability for Schembechler starts in the exact same place. We’ve reached a point where social media does reflect “the real us,” and social media apologies, including Schembechler’s, need to start by acknowledging as much.

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