College athletic departments eye social-media limits

Monday, November 12, 2012

Charlie Weis has a simple policy for his players when it comes to social media.

“Don’t be stupid,” the Kansas football coach said. “That’s a good way to start. When the guys go on Twitter and say stupid things, I’m forced to say things. Use some common sense. I don’t even go on my kid’s Facebook, because I promised I would never go on his Facebook, but the last thing you want to do is get on somebody’s Facebook and see 50 pictures of somebody getting drunk. How dumb is that?”

Not every coach is as blunt as Weis, but his sentiments are familiar throughout college athletics. Twitter, Facebook and other social-media platforms have given athletes more ways to connect with fans and other players, though not everyone seems to grasp the added responsibility that comes with all that exposure. The challenge for schools is figuring out how to help athletes navigate this new era of constant communication.

At Michigan, players now sign a statement acknowledging they have reviewed the athletic department’s social-media policy, which outlines potential discipline that can include suspension or dismissal from a team. Players are required to tell the athletic department about any social-media accounts they maintain.

Basketball player Josh Bartelstein says the policy isn’t too restrictive. His best advice to fellow athletes is to limit social-media posts to “stuff that you’d want your parents to read about.”

“If you’re not sure if you should send it, then you probably shouldn’t send it,” he said.

Athletes certainly aren’t the only ones ignoring that adage these days, but as high-profile representatives of their schools, they have a lot to lose by tweeting something inappropriate. Michigan committed a secondary NCAA violation not long ago when a couple football players tweeted at a recruit who had only verbally committed to the school.

At North Carolina, social media played a role in a much bigger ordeal — an NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct within the football program. The NCAA first visited the Chapel Hill campus after former defensive tackle Marvin Austin tweeted about a trip to Miami.

When UNC received a notice of allegations from the NCAA, the school was cited for failing to monitor “social-media activity” of the team in 2010. The school disputed that finding, and North Carolina now has a policy it says is similar to Michigan’s, with athletes having to “register” social-media information with the compliance office.

“Our kids have been really good about it. I think they understand,” said Steve Kirschner, the associate athletic director for communications at UNC. “We’ve had this policy for three years. There was a lot of misconception we were requiring passwords so we could go into their social media. That is not true and never has been true. … I think the largest thing for our kids is to understand Twitter is not instant messaging back and forth to each other. It’s a worldwide medium and what they say, they may be just intending it for a buddy or two, but it’s not limited.”

Kansas has no hard-and-fast guidelines for social media, although associate athletic director Jim Marchiony says athletes are given guidance on being smart about using it. And of course, the Kansas football coach has his own no-nonsense take.

“Just use common sense,” Weis said. “That is all any parent would ask. Now when they don’t use common sense I treat them like a little kid like you would expect me to — and that does happen.”

A service called UDiligence has sold software to some schools that tracks Facebook, Twitter and MySpace pages for inappropriate posts. But Michigan decided against using a program like that. Associate athletic director Dave Ablauf says coaches, public relations staffers and the compliance office all try to help monitor what athletes are saying online.

While all this extra attention raises some questions about athlete privacy, schools believe they’re fulfilling an educational role by teaching players how to behave on social media.

Michigan’s guidelines tell athletes to avoid posting when they are emotional, like after a game. Players are also told not to tweet during class.

“We want our student-athletes to understand that they have an opportunity to build their own brand, while they’re also part of the Michigan brand,” Ablauf said.

That word — brand — comes up quite a bit in this discussion. Clearly, a school has a vested interest in protecting itself from the negative publicity an athlete’s tweet or Facebook post could bring. But in the long term, the athletes also have a lot to gain by learning more about how to conduct themselves online.

Michigan uses Florida-based 180 Communications — a group specializing in media training, with an additional focus on social media. Lee Gordon of 180 Communications says his organization works with colleges, as well as some NFL and major league baseball teams, trying to help athletes understand the potential pitfalls of Facebook and Twitter.

“We try to let them know that they’re the CEO of their own brand,” Gordon said.

Professional athletes might already understand that, and they’re often keenly aware of how quickly their lucrative profession can be taken away if they say the wrong thing in a public forum.

That’s a harder concept for an 18-year-old in college to grasp.

“A lot them don’t understand what they have to lose,” Gordon said.

That’s what schools want their athletes to realize. High-profile athletes have more avenues than ever to communicate publicly, and that’s not going to change any time soon. But in many ways, the extra exposure only invites more scrutiny.

“Who knows where we’re going to be five years from now?” Gordon said. “It’s crazy to even think about.”

Also see: Twitter crackdowns do college athletes, free speech no favors and Colleges use software to monitor athletes’ social-media postings

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