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Commentary: From fame to infamy on social media

By now you have probably heard a lot of stories about people’s foolish uses of social media getting them into legal hot water — or maybe you’ve even experienced it in one of your own cases.

A plaintiff claims to be severely injured but posts pictures of a ski trip on Facebook. A man seeks custody of his kids but creates a profile stating that he’s childless on Match.com. A woman claims that her fiancé accidentally drowned during a kayaking trip, but she fills her Facebook page in the days following with cat photos and cheery quotes. A brilliant criminal mastermind likes his own America’s Most Wanted photo on Facebook and then gets arrested.

These are, of course, extreme (and fairly straightforward) examples of what not to do publicly on the Internet. But it’s not always so cut and dried. Sometimes what starts out as good press can lead to questions and shame before your 15minutes run out.

Take the recent story of Boston Marathon runner Mike Rossi, who, with the help of social media, went from “dad of the year” to the subject of a cheating scandal in a matter of days.

Rossi, a dad from Pennsylvania, took his two children out of school for three days so they could watch him run the 2015 Boston Marathon. The principal let Rossi know that the kids’ absences would be unexcused under school policy.

Rossi responded by posting a letter on his public Facebook page rebuking the principal and stating in part: “While I appreciate your concern for our children’s education, I can promise you they learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school.”

But Rossi didn’t stop there. When his post went viral, he did interviews about the experience, describing how important the time in Boston was for his family. Pictures of Rossi running various races started floating around the Web, and some people hailed his gumption and creative parenting.

But Rossi’s Internet fame and accolades started to pique the interest of some sleuths on several online running forums. Specifically, Rossi’s finish time in his Boston qualifier (the 2014 Lehigh Valley Health Network Via Marathon) was suspiciously fast and not in line with any of his previous races or his 2015 Boston finish.

This discovery led to public scrutiny of his Facebook posts, race photos (or lack thereof), and other activities on social media, all of which fueled the speculation that Rossi cut the course at the Via Marathon. (You’d think that the modern additions of chip timing, online digital race photography and social media would have made cheating in road races almost impossible, but people do still try.)

Rossi took down his public Facebook page (though people got screen shots before he did so), got a lawyer, and discussed taking legal action against those making accusations. Despite his denial of any wrongdoing, there was an investigation of Rossi’s Via Marathon race.

The Via Marathon ultimately decided not to disqualify Rossi, citing lack of “conclusive evidence” that his time was inaccurate. But many in the running community are not satisfied, and the cloud of suspicion still hovers. If and when Rossi runs his next marathon, runners near and far will bring popcorn and settle in for the show.

Internet celebrity cuts both ways. The viral capabilities of social media can bring you recognition and accolades but can also lead to the added scrutiny that comes from such exposure. If you put yourself out there, you have to know that you’re opening every door and window into the house of your life — so it better be clean.

Rebekah Page-Gourley is a staff attorney at the Institute of Continuing Legal Education in Ann Arbor. This commentary originally appeared as a blog post in the ICLE Community and is reprinted with permission. A version of this column originally appeared in Michigan Lawyers Weekly, sister publication to The Daily Record.

5 comments

  1. The guy screwed up. The numbers and behavior don’t add up. But in strictly legal terms, he cannot prove he ran the race in question. And in strictly legal terms, nobody can prove he didn’t. He registered for a race, was at the start line and was at the finish line.

    But the backlash against him needs to cease. Calling him out once is fine. Suspicion has been raised. The Via marathon has made changes. But taking to social media weeks later and screaming for attention and trying to breathe new life into the story is not helping either side. The obsession is disgusting and dangerous. I wish that the handful that have let this consume their lives for the last 3 months could channel their energy toward making their lives and their world a better place.

    Time to move on.

  2. Steve,

    Why are you posting if it’s time to move on? Pot/kettle much?

  3. Steve, no one is trying to “breathe new life into the story”, the story just hasn’t expired, it is a continuation to get the truth out there. Just like some court cases it can go on and on. The length of the process is not a valid reason to drop it. Right will win through eventually.

  4. I enjoyed this article, it was well written and relates this sordid affair to a more interesting general point.

    One small comment I would make is that it really not just suspicion – the mounting evidence that Mr. Rossi cheated has become ironclad. He was the only runner in the entire race (out of over a thousand) not to have any photographs taken of him out on the course. The 100 runners who finished closest to Mr. Rossi all had at least 4 photos, while Rossi had none. That’s proof right there, but there is also plenty of weaker circumstantial evidence. Mr. Rossi has run dozens of other races, all of them WAY slower than his suspicious race at Lehigh, but all of them pretty consistent with each other. And he has celebrated many of those performances on social media, contradicting later claims that he was not at trying at any of these dozens of races. He also conspicuously did *not* celebrate his extraordinary Lehigh performance on social media, but rather was very quiet about it at the time which does not match his personality or previous actions. Lots of circumstantial evidence, but really it is the photos which are the ironclad proof.

    In another interesting twist, the website LetsRun.com has offered Mike Rossi $100,000 if he can replicate his suspicious performance within the next year.

  5. And now this has appears, goes to Mike’s character. He is appearing in court today:

    http://www.phillymag.com/news/2016/06/28/boston-marathon-dad-mike-rossi-arrested-at-kenny-chesney-concert/

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