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Schools to athletes: Don't party -- or post party shots on Facebook

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 2, 2008-  As another season gets underway for college and high school athletes across St. Louis, coaches have dreamed up - and in some cases already delivered - opening remarks to their teams.

The playbook: Start with some inspiration, then hit 'em with the serious stuff. Don't drink. Don't do drugs. Don't skip class. Increasingly, there's another element to the speech. Don't show yourself doing any of these things on Facebook or MySpace.

The two social networking sites have become so ubiquitous in student circles that almost everyone's heard at least one cautionary tale: A classmate here, a friend of a friend there who's gotten in trouble at school for a racy picture or gossipy post on their personal page.

More and more colleges across the country and in St. Louis are stressing to athletes, some of whom have a high profile within their communities, the importance of putting forth a positive image on sites like Facebook. Some institutions have developed and publicized online social networking policies that cover what's expected of athletes and when coaches or administrators might intervene. Athletics compliance officers are known to monitor athletes' pages to make sure the college isn't being shown in a bad light. There's even software designed to help athletics departments identify potentially harmful postings.

But in many cases, suggestions about how to manage social networking accounts come via word of mouth - if at all. That's certainly true at St. Louis high schools, according to a handful of athletics directors who spoke about how coaches and administrators address the issue.

Jason West, a spokesman for the Missouri High School Activities Association and a former University of Tulsa athletics spokesman, said sports administrators at all levels are concerned about how athletes represent themselves and their schools online.

At Tulsa "we tried to drive home to athletes that anyone at anytime and anywhere can get their hands on your page," West said. "That includes future employers and teams from other schools. When you're 17 or 18, you think you're immortal. But what you post could easily come back to haunt you."

Colleges Respond

Brad Byars, a former St. Louis University men's swimmer who once led the institution's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, said that athletes regularly updated their Facebook pages and, just like students in general, talked about what pictures and comments appeared on each other's pages. He said team captains regularly addressed the dos and don'ts of Facebook postings during their first conversations with younger teammates.

Byars, who graduated in the spring, said he first heard from a university compliance officer two years ago about the potential dangers of posting to social networking sites. St. Louis University leaves it to coaches to set their own policies about what athletes post, and Byars said those rules vary from requiring that privacy settings are activated to asking players to stay off the sites entirely.

Both SLU and the University of Missouri-St. Louis have written policies in handbooks given to athletes (under the heading of electronic messaging) saying that involvement in Facebook and MySpace is "your choice," but "how you represent yourself is our concern." The policies go on to say that a failure to positively represent the institution may result in an athlete's inability to compete.

Michael Ross, a professor of psychology at St. Louis University and its faculty athletics representative, said that when an athletics advisory committee there considered how to devise social networking guidelines years ago, the objective was not to overreact.

"We want to respect students' independence and treat them with a level of respect that's consistent with what they give back," Ross said. "If that respect is violated, and they embarrass the institution, we deal with an individual on a case-by-case basis."

Added Chuck Yahng, a spokesman for SLU's athletics department: "Our position is that we give students leeway and freedom until something warrants a change."

Coaches and assistants are often on the front lines checking players' pages for potential problems, and Ross said their ability to set individual policies and report their findings to compliance directors is critical.

Byars said he is against colleges and individual coaches making blanket policies about online posting. "I completely believe we should have the freedom to do whatever we want," he said. "We're already restricted in so many ways. If you keep us off, you're stopping us from communicating with friends like a normal college kid does and you're hurting the overall experience of an athlete."

Washington University, for its part, doesn't have anything in writing about social networking, says Joe Worlund, associate athletics director. But when he and the university's athletics director hold meetings with each team before the academic year starts, they bring up the Facebook issue as a five-minute piece of a much longer conversation.

In some cases, college coaches require athletes to "friend" them as a way of monitoring the full content of a page. Worlund said he has a Facebook account but "doesn't go looking for trouble."

"There are coaches who want to instill fear and say, 'Hey, we know how to get onto your account,' " Byars said. "For athletes that can be intimidating that you might have a coach or a senior athletics official looking at your stuff."

And if coaches want extra help mining social networking sites for potential trouble, it's available in the form of tracking software. One such product, YouDilligence, scans Facebook and MySpace pages for hundreds of phrases and keywords - profane statements, for instance - that coaches would prefer stay off their players' pages. Colleges can customize the words that trigger the red flag, and when such language appears on a page, a college official gets an e-mail showing what was written, the name of the person involved and a link to that page. Coaches can see the passage in context and read photo captions (but the software doesn't search for photographs).

Kevin Long, president of MVP Sports Media Training, the company behind YouDilligence, said that close to three dozen colleges in all three National Collegiate Athletic Association divisions use the service, but that none are in the St. Louis area. The company is focusing marketing efforts on college athletics departments.

The Student-Athlete Advisory Committees, which represent athletes at NCAA meetings, haven't taken a stance on tracking technology, but advise athletes to remove contact information from personal sites. Jennifer Kearns, a spokeswoman for the association, said the NCAA membership leaves it up to individual colleges to determine their own policies on athletes' use of social networking sites.

Both Worlund and Ross said that as these online sites have become increasingly popular, fewer students are surprised to hear coaches and administrators mention concerns about what's posted on them.

"I think over the past few years students have gotten the message," Worland said.

Reaching High School Athletes

Many of the students are hearing such warnings in high school or earlier. Coaches at Webster Groves High School, for instance, frequently talk to athletes about their conduct outside of school, including online interactions, according to Jerry Collins, activities director at the school.

"If something's brought to our attention, we're obligated to look into it," Collins said. "But we don't go looking for signs of trouble."

Nor does the school explicitly mention electronic communication in its code of conduct that applies to all students. Passages refer to alcohol, tobacco and drug use, but, perhaps not surprisingly at a public institution, not online conduct away from school. There's also no written policy regarding social networking at the district level, according to Cathy Vespereny, a spokeswoman for the Webster Groves School District.

Sam Dunlap, supervisor of athletics for the St. Louis Public High League, said the topic hasn't surfaced in his office, although he said it "could be a concern."

At St. Louis University High School, while there's no official policy on social networking, coaches typically address the issue before their team's season starts, said Dick Wehner, the school's athletics director. Chaminade High, another private school, also doesn't have a written online communication policy. Tom Fernandez, director of athletics there, said the topic has come up at the administrative level.

"As a parent, it is certainly a concern," he wrote in an e-mail.

Long, the MVP Sports Media Training president, said high school administrators generally tell him that they want parents - and not the school - setting social networking policies. If such policies were in place, they say, and a coach found something potentially damaging on a player's page, some fear the school could be held liable if it didn't discipline the athlete.

Long said he hasn't marketed the scanning software to high schools, nor has he heard from high school coaches or athletics directors. (He said the company is set to launch a version of the product to parents of teens and "tweens").

West, the Missouri High School Activities Association spokesman, said he doesn't see his organization addressing social networking with any type of written policy. But he said high schools could include - as part of contracts that athletes sign - a clause that mentions online communication.

"One thing that coaches and administrators always say is that you don't have a right to play sports, it's a privilege," he said. "I'd think that high schools could have their word on online conduct much as colleges do."

Elia Powers is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

Elia Powers
Elia Powers is a Freelance Writer in St. Louis. He worked on several stories for the STL Beacon.

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