Coaches blow whistle on athlete indiscretions on networking sites

July 16, 2006

Before DeMarcus Dobbs plays a game at Georgia, we know this much: He has 271 friends. He was at Whitney’s for a party over Memorial Day weekend. (But he doesn’t drink or smoke.) He broke Jake the Snake’s nose. (But it was Justin’s fault.) He has a girl named Anna who will always love him despite the paint handprint he put on her shirt. And he’d better bring his money next time he sees Bobby "cuz it’s on."

Welcome to the online social networking/self-profiling world of MySpace.com, Facebook.com and dozens of similar Internet sites.
 
That emerging world has started to collide with a well-established one — college athletics.

The resulting big bang is what coaches, athletic departments and players have started to deal with in recent months. Administrators and coaches, previously out of touch with the new technology, are coming to understand its power and their athletes’ sometimes brazen willingness to share almost anything on the public domain.

They’re in line behind middle and high school administrators, police and parents who for months have worried about safety and privacy consequences of posting private information on the sites.

The sites have begun to respond to such concerns. For example, MySpace recently tightened access to some profiles and appointed a chief security officer who formerly served as a federal prosecutor.

At Northwestern University, photos of the women’s soccer team hazing the freshmen players, taken from Webshots.com, surfaced on BadJocks.com. The Evanston, Ill., university was one of the 12 schools where athletes had posted various pictures of alcohol-fueled behavior. BadJocks.com grabbed the photos from the public domain of Webshots.com, packaged them, called them "The Dirty Dozen" and had more than 600,000 unique visitors the day the story broke.

At Louisiana State University, swimmers Eddie Kenney and Matt Coenen were booted from the team after it was learned of their disparaging remarks about the coach on Facebook.com, a wildly popular site where college students interact and can re-create their image with a few keystrokes.

At the University of Colorado, offensive tackle Clint O’Neal was suspended from the Champs Sports Bowl after he was accused of sending a racially threatening facebook message to a Hispanic cross country runner. He was also ticketed by campus police for harassment.

At Kent State, Facebook.com, open to those with an e-mail address that ends in .edu, was banned after athletics director Laing Kennedy became concerned about athletes’ safety and his school’s image. Kennedy, who received harsh criticism, quickly backed off his ban and said last week he now restricts and monitors athletes’ use of the site. "You have student-athletes misrepresenting their team and theirselves," Kennedy said. "We had one situation that really got our attention. There was some information inappropriate outside the realm of the team that was leading down a road we felt became dangerous." Kennedy wouldn’t provide further details.

That dangerous road, according to Kennedy and other athletics directors, is lined with hangers-on, gamblers and agents who could use a Facebook friendship to compromise eligibility.


Image concerns


There are also images to protect: The image of the program, which at its core operates like a business, and of the athletes who make that business money. "From the stance of an athletic department, the thing that is the most dangerous to them is the disclosure of information, and information that shines a negative light back to the program," said Fred Stutzman, a University of North Carolina doctoral student who has published a paper on Facebook.com. "There is so much money tied into these departments, I think that they want to control all variables they can control."

The University of Georgia exercised control in the spring. Football coach Mark Richt had someone from his staff surf the sites, and Richt subsequently asked a few players to take down items that could be viewed negatively. Richt said it was for the players’ protection.

"Everybody’s got to be careful with what they put out there," he said. "These guys are ours. Just like I would with my son, we’re trying to get on there and see what’s going on."

Facebook officials also are concerned about the images posted and the messages those might send. "Student athletes should not be posting pictures that show them drinking when they are underage or with illegal drugs," said Melanie Deitch, director of marketing for the company. "It is against our terms of service [to post such pictures]."

There is also the future to think about, said Georgia athletics director Damon Evans. Because once an image is portrayed on the Internet, it may not be forgotten. "Stuff spreads on there pretty quickly," Georgia quarterback Joe Tereshinski said. "If you want to have a party going on, you can get on there and set one up that night. Then if people get mad at you for some certain reason, your picture is up there, or any type of information about you. It might not be true. But if it is up there, people are going to believe it." A year ago is like history.

Georgia, as well as Georgia Tech, continues to grapple with the proper response to the increasing presence of online sites in players’ lives. "This is a very public domain, and there are potential consequences," Tech athletics director Dan Radakovich said. Radakovich, who has been at the university three months, knows the consequences better than most. He was working in LSU’s athletic department when Kenney and Coenen were dismissed. "That was the first heads-up we got [of Facebook.com's potential]," he said. "But even a year ago, [Facebook] was not as prevalent as it is now."

Today, Stutzman said, the Web site’s market penetration is astounding. At North Carolina, 94 percent of incoming freshmen signed up for a free Facebook.com account. "Every college student seems to have a digital camera," said Bob Reno, publisher of BadJocks.com "They are all wired to the Internet. Then you combine the social networks, it gives the outlet. It is the perfect storm."

And the storm clouds continue to grow. Even after the publication of "The Dirty Dozen," more photos were found and compiled into the "Dirty 30" on a separate site.


‘Put that on the Internet’?


"People need to understand they have a role and responsibility to a larger community," said Peter Roby, director for the Boston-based Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "Why in the world they would want to put that on the Internet is mind-boggling."

Athletics administrators have found they can exert some control. Shortly after student athletes sign scholarship agreements with schools, they also sign codes of conduct, which can include any number of stipulations. Athletic scholarships are renewed on a year-to-year basis.

"We have always recognized that students can give up certain rights to play athletics in college," said Greg Lukianoff, president of TheFire.org, a group that fights to defend the right to free speech on college campuses. "They are representatives of the college. So we do recognize that universities have increased power to place limitations on students who are athletes. We have seen a worrisome trend this might be going a bit far."

Such as in Kent State’s case. Only approved friends are allowed on Facebook.com — a blocking tool can keep the unwanted out — and coaches must be given access. "[Blocking people out], that is counterintuitive to how the network works," UNC’s Stutzman said. "Being on the facebook is a critical part of being at college because it is so widely used. Students plan out gatherings, they communicate with each other, they really leverage a lot of what the facebook offers. If you are not a part of that, it would be like a college student without a cellphone now."

Lukianoff said it also could damage the educational experience. "[Universities] are places that are supposed to welcome and nurture freedom of speech," he said. "Open academic expression requires unfettered and uncensored speech and exchange of ideas. Do you have to give up all your expressive rights to be on the sports team? By monitoring or censoring these sites, [college athletic programs] seem to be ignoring that these are both athletes and students," he said.

Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Northwestern University University of Georgia University of Colorado at Boulder