I ended up talking to the FBI: Recollections of a sports message board mod

June 28, 2020

Working for a major sports media company in the late 2000s was good, on balance. I met colleagues whose friendship I cherish to this day, got to write for a reasonably large audience, and spent all my time thinking and talking about sports with other people as passionate about them as I was. Well, almost all my time. I also had to answer customer service emails and phone calls and help moderate the message boards. This post is about that part of the job.

One memorable email came from someone having difficulty logging in to our website’s subscriber-only fantasy advice section. Most people who contacted us had questions about billing and how to cancel their subscriptions, but this guy was telling us the site simply wouldn’t let him log in. Eventually, he explained that he was trying to get there using WebTV and was incredulous and indignant when we recommended he use Firefox, Explorer, or Chrome.

At least he was the only one having that issue. A few times, the site crashed at inopportune times — like, say, 12:15 pm eastern on the second Sunday of the NFL season. While that would be bad for any sports media company, it was horrible for us because we also hosted a bunch of different fantasy football games, and our policy was that if a user was unable to make a change himself, for whatever reason, he could email us the changes to his lineup he wanted and we would retroactively apply those changes, so long as we received the emails before any deadlines and the moves were legal.

On this particular Sunday, more than 1,300 emails arrived, almost all of them requesting changes, and as soon as the site issues were resolved the customer service team got to work fulfilling those requests. Several hours in to wading through the morass of messages, I came across one where the sender had written in all caps with 200-point type, “WHERE ARE ALL YOUR PROGRAMMERS? AT A STAR WARS CONVENTION?”

That was it. No request for fantasy lineup changes. On to the next one.

The worst part of answering customer service emails and phone calls was explaining to people that they’d subscribed to a website with recurring billing and that we had no way of seeing if they’d actually been using the site, so we could refund the most recent payment, but not all of them. Many times, it was women calling, demanding that we cancel what they believed to be an obviously fraudulent charge, only to realize when we explained what this product was that their husband, son, or father had signed up for a subscription without realizing it was a subscription and not a one-time access fee.

I’ll never forget speaking to one woman who was clearly fighting back tears as she tried to figure out how a $20 charge had been made even though she and her husband had cut up their card months before. I told her someone who shared her surname had purchased an annual subscription, which meant the card would be charged each year on the same date, but no worries, because I would cancel the subscription and refund that most recent charge for her. At which point she lost it. Yes, she acknowledged her husband had probably signed up for this site years before, but I still didn’t get it, she said. They had an agreement with the bank that they wouldn’t use this card and now everything was ruined. I gave her my number if she wanted to call her bank and have them call me back for a three-way call so I could explain what had likely happened, but she never got back to me.

The customer service team got other interactions, too. There was the guy who mailed us letters that were four pages of a single run-on sentence, scrawled in longhand and veering from the Brooklyn Dodgers to playing cards to George W. Bush. There was the guy who walked in the front door of our building and demanded to speak to someone because his $100 prize hadn’t been mailed to him five weeks after the season ended. There were the people who emailed us that our lawyers were idiots for determining that people in certain states couldn’t win prizes due to state laws, and pointed to other websites that would pay residents of Colorado for winning fantasy sports games.

Then there were guys who insisted that our site would be much bigger and more successful if smarter people, people like them, were running it. “Everyone just needs to see how fun salary cap fantasy games are,” they’d tell us. "Why don't I ever see advertisements for your games? Advertise on ESPN!" they'd write. “You’re sitting on a gold mine!” they’d say. “Thank you for your feedback. We appreciate your suggestions and will keep them in mind moving forward,” we’d respond.

Moderating the message boards could have been simple. For most sections, we just had to answer questions people asked about our games and swoop in whenever someone reported another person cursing or fighting, and so on. But at some point before I started, someone had decided it was best to set aside one message board where there would be minimal rules and people could be as profane as they wished, on the theory that the assholes could all gather on that board instead of flooding boards where people were asking if they should start Patrick Crayton that week. I’ll call it the Basement.

On the Basement, the only rules were no explicit racism, no doxing (though few used that term at the time), no death threats, and no threatening other people’s family. The Internet Archive has some cached versions of this board from around that time, and while none of the posts, themselves, appear to have been preserved, the subject lines are all there. Some representative examples, all of them sic:

Which [Basement] member would make the best terrorist?

The US A Christian Nation?

1 in 4 Teen Girls Have an STD

The Damn Libs are ruining the country

Sarah Palin is a terrorist supporter!

Sluttiest Slut Award

even nasty pelosie says dems suck

Hillary Cries Like a Little Girl or Ed Muskie in N.H.

Lance Armstrong banging Olsen Twin?

An example of the "We Hate America" network news anchors

Reagan and Hitler: Disturbing similarities

Is mocking religion illegal?

Terri Schiavo or a Turtle?

OJ Guilty!

Why Does Baby Trig Palin So Infuriate the Elitist Left?

Jesus sucks

The core posters were mostly middle-aged white dudes who really did think they were engaging in a vibrant intellectual community — even as their conversations invariably descended into name-calling and taunts that this or that person was "on tilt", all while they were trying to work the refs (us) to get their enemies banned and cheering when their friends who had been banned managed to slip back on the board.

One notorious poster who I’ll call Dick had a habit of such transgressive behavior that one of the first things I was told upon being hired is that if I spotted him posting to our message boards, his username was to be banned immediately and his posts deleted. In certain cases, we’d also ban a user’s IP address, but this guy used a rotating IP address and he couldn't stop antagonizing this board, so we ended up playing whack-a-mole, banning him on sight on a weekly basis.

What had Dick done to earn the perma-ban? I never got clear answers about what happened before I became a mod, but during my tenure, I read his posts and noted that while the substance wasn’t necessarily any worse than the stuff posted by the other miscreants on the Basement, he used a lot more profanity and slipped into ad hominem attacks much more easily. Eventually, I heard stories about how he would find other users’ personal information and leave them harassing phone messages. It got to the point that a few of those other users called the police. Still others begged us to find a way to actually ban him so that their precious flame wars could go on without his interference.

All the regulars knew a shocking amount of information about Dick. They knew his full name, where he lived, how old he was, and his former occupations. They knew he was mostly confined to his home and unable to work. They posted about him freely, and at one point he contacted us to complain that someone was doxing him on our site. We deleted that post.

A couple years into the job, someone sent us a complaint that spurred us to take extraordinary action. A user credibly claimed that Dick had threatened his children via our site’s private messaging function, so my boss’s boss empowered me to take any measures necessary to get Dick off our site for good.

I contacted Dick's internet service provider and explained what was happening, trying to get him dropped as a customer for violating their terms of service, but didn’t get very far. I tried calling the local law enforcement where he lived, hoping they might scare him out of logging back in, but they said they didn't handle that sort of thing and referred me to the FBI. Which is how I ended up on the phone with an FBI agent, explaining to him that someone was using our site to harass other people and threaten children. He dutifully heard me out and took my email and number, but after that initial call, I never heard from him again.

Even still, I had a nuclear option. After extensive Googling, I discovered that Dick’s sister lived in the same area he did and found her contact information. I asked my boss’s boss if I could send her a message about intervening with Dick, but after some consideration he decided that was a step too far.

Dick is dead now. Earlier this year, I found his obituary and saw he'd died in 2014. Even though all those guys posting on the Basement knew his name and some of them spent an inordinate amount of time feuding with him, the obit and spammy ancestry information is the only thing that comes up when you Google him now.

Shortly after the FBI conversation, I stopped moderating the message boards, having been granted the opportunity to do more gratifying work. The Basement didn’t last long after that, anyway. Apparently, one of the posters decided it was a good idea to bring his complaints to the attention of my boss’s boss’s boss by calling his office, and after figuring out what in the hell this dude was talking about, the big boss immediately ordered the Basement shut down.

A few of us worried the Basement regulars would migrate back to the other message boards on our site, bringing their battles with them, but that problem never came up, and no one ever brought up whether creating the Basement was a good idea in the first place.

(Photo: "Little Marco Rubios Campaign is a Dumpster Fire" by T.J. Hawk. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)