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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

Athletic Departments Battle Facebook

Just as advances in Internet and digital technology have created new opportunities for collegiate athletic departments, they have also produced new challenges. Perhaps the most commonly encountered such challenge has been the advent of online communities such as Facebook and MySpace that give users virtual carte blanche to express themselves on the worldwide information superhighway. Athletic departments are learning that every student-athlete with a Facebook account is a potential public relations disaster.

Wildly popular among college students, Facebook (www.facebook.com) gives its more than 69 million members the chance to post photos and videos, to write on their virtual walls, and to send messages to other Facebook account holders. Postings often include photos depicting the wilder aspects of college life, which have created an array of problems for athletic departments, teams, and athletes. When it was launched, Facebook access was limited to users with a .edu e-mail address. But the site opened its doors wider, and more than half of today’s users are outside colleges, although the site maintains an 85% market share of college students. There are more than 65 billion Facebook page views per month, and 45% of users visit the site each day. More than 14 million photos are uploaded daily. In 2006 Facebook was the 66th-most-trafficked website in the world; in 2008 it was at one point the 5th-most-trafficked. Facebook currently pronounces itself the world’s sixth-most-trafficked website (Facebook.com, n.d.).

Since its creation in 2004, Facebook has been a recurring thorn in the side of athletic departments nationwide. Student-athletes, believing that their profiles were viewed only by their college friends, comfortably posted photos that documented underage drinking, sexually provocative behavior, and hazing rituals. These students were unaware that their posts were available for worldwide consumption. In addition, student-athletes have posted directions to parties accommodating underage drinking and personal information such as phone numbers and team travel itineraries including hotels (“On Campus,” 2006).

Eventually the “adults” began catching up. When athletic departments began checking into the Facebook phenomenon, they were disturbed to discover what their student-athletes had placed on the World Wide Web. Several high-profile incidents forced the athletic departments involved to take action, and they alerted the rest of the nation’s athletic departments to the threats awaiting online. Summaries of some incidents follow.

Athletes are not alone among college students who have met with trouble through Facebook postings. Plenty of other students have been hauled into disciplinary hearings for the photos they post, particularly those depicting underage drinking and/or drinking in dormitories. Many colleges now regularly screen Facebook profiles and take disciplinary action when profiles reflect inappropriate conduct. On some campuses, university police browse Facebook in search of information on parties involving underage drinking, so that they can be shut down.

Facebook and similar sites pose a multitude of problems for athletic departments. Athletes who post personal information endanger their own and sometimes their teammates’ welfare. They can jeopardize their play eligibility by inadvertently making themselves accessible to gamblers and sports agents. Also of concern to athletic administrators and their colleagues is the damage that can be done to an institution’s reputation through online photos of star athletes behaving badly. The immediacy of the digital age, the global accessibility and worldwide grapevine of the Internet, and the imperfect decision making of teenagers together can make a combustible public-relations situation.

College athletes’ stalwart dependability in digitally incriminating themselves has even sprouted websites devoted to exploiting those lapses in judgment; Badjocks.com is the industry leader, so popular now that it regularly receives tips about athletes compromised on Facebook, MySpace, and Webshots. Institutions that have taken a Badjocks.com public beating include Northwestern University (women’s soccer), Catholic University (women’s lacrosse), Elon University (baseball), Farleigh Dickinson University (softball), Quinnipiac University (baseball), Wake Forest University (women’s volleyball), Fordham University (softball), Kenyon College (baseball), Princeton University (cheerleading), the University of Michigan (men’s lacrosse), and the University of Iowa (football,baseball).

The obvious problem facing university athletic departments is how to use education, monitoring, and discipline to preclude harm resulting from athletes’ Facebook appearances. But that may be infinitely more complicated than it sounds. Consider how easily an image of an athlete in a compromising situation can be posted by someone else on a page not the athlete’s. Even an athletic department dictating what its athletes can post on their pages has little influence on what nonathletes post, especially when they attend other universities or are not students.

Collegiate athletes have always been high-profile figures, even at colleges not considered high-profile institutions. The rules have always been different for athletes, who get perks unavailable to the student body at large. They travel and miss classes, get special meals, and many get athletic scholarships. They get attention not normally afforded nonathletes, and so they make easy targets. In this day and age, it is critical for student-athletes to understand that at almost any time they may be in some camera’s range, and not every camera is in the hands of an ally. Aspiring investigative journalists nationwide now have a multitude of sources just a mouse-click away. Student newspapers at the University of Florida, University of Memphis, Pennsylvania State University, Framingham State University, and others have all used digital photos to break controversial stories about athletes.

Recognizing the threat to their athletes and to their images, many universities and athletic departments have finally gotten into the game in creating policy to govern athletes’ participation in web communities like Facebook and MySpace. What policy, however, is the best policy? Some universities, such as Loyola University–Chicago, have prohibited student-athletes from maintaining pages on networking sites. “I know it’s not a popular decision,” said John Planek, the school’s athletic director, adding that the issue is one of the safety and well-being of athletes, whom he would protect from agents, gamblers, and sexual predators who might contact them through their profiles (Brady & Libit, 2006). Arkansas State University urged all student-athletes to delete their online profiles after photos of several intoxicated athletes surfaced on Facebook. “We want to take a proactive approach, and we want to educate the students of what is out there and how that information can be used against them,” said Melanie Richardson, associate director of athletic administration (Tweedle, 2006).

Most universities have yet to take Loyola’s hard line, choosing to try to educate student-athletes about the pitfalls of careless posting. Many athletic departments are now monitoring online content belonging to their athletes, assistant coaches frequently taking on the task. Soon, some may try a new service, YouDiligence, which uses software to scour web profiles for inappropriate words and phrases or indications of questionable behavior. Vocabulary to be searched will be designated by users, who will pay $500 up front and $250 per month for the service (Watkins, 2008).

Some colleges and universities have used their student-athlete handbooks to address Facebook. Erskine College’s 2007–08 handbook for student-athletes states, “You are responsible for your own behavior; be aware of the image you are creating. Be careful what you place on Facebook or any internet site. Student-athletes will be expected to have ‘clean’ Facebook sites because you are a representative of Erskine College” (Erskine College Department of Athletics, 2007, p. 3). The University of Minnesota–Duluth, through its athletic department, has student-athletes “sign a statement saying they understand that if they choose to create a Myspace or Facebook profile, that profile is subject to review at any time” (Collier, 2008).

At the University of Maryland (UM), the athletic department speaks through its coaches (O’Toole, 2006). Coaches are responsible to educate UM student-athletes about dangers of reckless posting and what constitutes acceptable web page content for members of the Terrapin athletic department (O’Toole, 2006). “From a coaching standpoint, as much as we want them to do the right thing, they are still kids, and they’re still learning,” said UM gymnastics coach Bob Nelligan. “Anything you put on Facebook is public record, and anyone can see it. It can cause embarrassment to your family, to the team or to the athletic department of the school” (O’Toole, 2006).

Lewis and Clark College handles Facebook incidents case by case. Athletic Director Jenny Simon created her own Facebook account to monitor student-athlete postings (Hultine, 2007). According to Simon, “We have a responsibility as a department to be aware of what is happening online and to provide athletes with knowledge of what is acceptable and what is not. Our student-athletes represent our department not only on the field, but also in all of their other pursuits” (Hultine, 2007). The college’s head women’s basketball coach, Juli Fulks, said, “At the beginning of each year we have a discussion on appropriate team behavior which includes Facebook. We expect players to keep in mind that their sites are open to anyone’s viewing and if inappropriate behavior (as established by our team and coaching staff) is documented online, we will handle that matter within our team” (Hultine, 2007). Ultimately, Fulks noted, athletes are expected to simply use their best judgment when posting and communicating on social networking sites (Hultine, 2007).

No athletic department of whatever size wants to be dealt a Facebook blow; the greatest public relations risk, however, rests with high-profile universities, whom a Facebook mishap could land as a top story on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Kirk Ferentz, head football coach at the University of Iowa, had his team attend two seminars on the dangers of Facebook in the year leading up to the report filed by the Iowa Press-Citizen (Berman, 2007). “It’s just another reminder that what they do is very public,” Ferentz said. “Like it or not, that’s part of the responsibility of being an athlete, and they need to keep it in mind.” At Florida State University, Pam Overton, associate director of athletics, urges coaches to educate students on the realities of being in a high-profile program. “All we really want is for our athletes to protect their own privacy and make smart decisions,” Overton said. “We basically tell them, ‘If you don’t want to see it as a newspaper headline or on the six o’clock news, don’t put it on Facebook’” (“On Campus,” 2006).

The Facebook frenzy has given rise to a relatively new profession in college athletics: sports media trainers. These specialists work with athletic departments to determine how they want their schools to be viewed in the press. Then they work with coaches and players to make sure they project the departments’ desired images (Reynolds, 2006). “People who … protect the image of their school understand that is doesn’t matter if it’s a JuCo who got into a fight in a town bar, or it’s Duke’s J. J. Redick making a U-turn and getting stopped by the police—it is going to have an impact on the way the community views your school,” explained Kevin Long, president of MVP Sports Media Training (Reynolds, 2006). “Media training is something every school is going to need to do,” he continued. Long has worked with Purdue University, Colorado State University, the Coast Guard Academy, the University of Arkansas, and George Mason University, among others. Long further stated, “The reputations of the chancellor, provost, president and everyone at the university are on the line every time these teams are on the air. They have 18- to 21-year-old kids with no formal training representing their livelihood, their school, and their fund-raising efforts” (Reynolds, 2006).


Presently, there is a dizzying litany of web community postings involving college athletes and teams in disciplinary actions. Every Friday night holds the potential for a public relations calamity. Citing every instance to date would be impossible, and the list of incidents grows longer seemingly by the day. (It should also be mentioned that many incidents go undocumented.)

Many schools, when first broaching the issue of Facebook, begin by perusing pages kept by their athletes. They can be so overwhelmed by the number of potentially offensive or embarrassing posts that addressing each issue individually seems out of the question. So, they frequently choose to proceed as Florida State University did, addressing themselves to all student-athletes at once and attaching a deadline and an ultimatum.

Facebook is more of a danger to athletic department image than to athletes directly. Although several athletic directors express concern about athletes being contacted by gamblers via Facebook, no such incidents are documented. For all the talk of protecting student-athletes, the fact is that Facebook has not changed behavior of college students, student-athletes, or those who prey on them. What Facebook has changed is athletic departments’ ability to look the other way following students’ potentially embarrassing behavior.

As long as there are sites such as Facebook and MySpace, an athletic department’s image will be at the mercy of its student-athletes and how they conduct themselves. Setting policy for athletes’ Facebook pages is relatively easy and something that every athletic department should do. Much more difficult is convincing students in the thick of the “college lifestyle” to be diligently mindful of their conduct in the digital age. Athletic departments cannot police the pages of nonathletes and nonstudents, who cannot be prevented from posting embarrassing photos of student-athletes on their pages, or forwarding photos to sites like Badjocks.com. They cannot be prevented from taking photos to begin with, either, so athletic departments are likely to be forever playing catch-up, spinning their wheels in damage-control quagmires once the photos are “out there.”

Athletic departments must combat the dangers of these sites by educating student-athletes about the consequences of what they post and what others post concerning them. Athletic departments must be vigilant in their efforts to convince student-athletes that anyone—from ambitious journalism majors to graduate school admissions boards to prospective employers—could someday view their pages. They need their student-athletes to understand the big picture: that cameras are all around them and that others’ photo-sharing is out of their control (and if it happens online can last forever as part of the public domain). And, of course, that as team members they represent a university, a coaching staff, and their teammates, not just themselves.

This task is monumental because the problem, at least the image problem, belongs to the university, not the student, and is not entirely under the control of either. It is unrealistic to expect college students to stop doing what college students have always done: live at peace with underage drinking and casual sex and fraternity hazing and spectacular pranks. This four-year bubble of rebellion and quasi-hedonism is virtually considered a right by teenagers who have spent the first 12 years of their schooling pining for the independence that lay ahead. College students won’t change their behavior because, first and foremost, they don’t see anything wrong with it. For decades their indiscretions have been forgiven if not completely justified by a blanket Get Out of Jail Free card: “We’re college students.” And now that we have both feet in the digital age, as long as college students are acting like college students, someone will be documenting their behavior with a camera.
The best universities can hope for is some positive influence on student-athletes (and students in general) in terms of mindfulness of the consequences that they—as high-profile figures—can bring down through their actions; mindfulness may make for good decisions.


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