With the rise of social networking Web sites like Facebook and MySpace, all it takes is one incriminating photo for a student athlete to potentially lose a scholarship or be kicked off a team. And it’s not just hypothetical. There are numerous examples of athletes being punished for pictures or words published on the Internet, depicting misdeeds ranging from hazing to underage drinking.
Because the risks are so high, athletic departments across the country are increasingly re-evaluating their policies.
Cal Poly, however, does not have an official policy and probably never will, athletics director Alison Cone said.
Just because the university hasn’t implemented a formal policy, though, doesn’t mean school officials aren’t concerned about the hazards.
Beginning with the recruiting process, Shannon Stephens, the athletics department director of Academic Services, warns athletes of the dangers in the evolving cyber world.
“You get into this kind of freedom-of-speech thing at a public university,” Stephens said. “Then, at the same time, you have the mission statement of the athletics department and the institution.”
Cases necessitating such warnings have taken on many forms.
In April, Buffalo men’s basketball player Andy Robinson posted a Facebook solicitation offering $30 to $40 to anyone who’d read a certain book to write a paper for him. After the student newspaper reported on the note a day later, he was suspended.
A month prior, members of the Slippery Rock (of Pennsylvania) track and field team were suspended from a meet after pictures featuring underage drinking at a party were posted on the site.
Some universities, such as Loyola Chicago and Minnesota Duluth, have even completely forbid their athletes from belonging to Facebook.
Elsewhere in recent years, alcohol-laden party pictures have led to suspensions of women’s soccer players at San Diego State, and portrayals of hazing led to the same at Northwestern.
Facebook ultimatums have been issued at Florida State and Kentucky.
But some schools haven’t been so generous to provide such grace periods for athletes to clean things up.
In May 2005, Eddie Kenney and Matt Coenen were promptly booted off the LSU swim team after it was learned they were members of a Facebook group publicizing disparaging comments regarding their coaches.
Other, less individualized postings on the site have garnered outrage spilling into surrounding communities.
Hundreds attended a protest march in the Bay Area following the January 2007 publication by Santa Clara student athletes of photos featuring them at an off-campus, allegedly racist birthday party. (Costumes, modeled after a “south of the border” theme, mocked Latinos through stereotypical depictions of Mexican gardeners, maids, gangsters and pregnant women.)
In 2006, Kent State, which revised an initial ban into stringent guidelines, was among the first universities to implement an express policy.
“Our policy fits our student athletes’ code of conduct, which says they cannot have things that would embarrass yourself, family, team, coaches or athletic department,” Kent State athletics director Laing Kennedy explained.
The new approach requires student athletes to provide their coaches access to their profiles.
Kennedy said the university’s legal counsel had no qualms over a freedom-of-speech violation.
Just those concerns, though, trouble Cone.
“I know there are some athletics departments who have told (student athletes), ‘You can’t be on the social networking sites,’ ” Cone said. “I’m not sure that’s appropriate, but we do want them to present themselves as representatives of Cal Poly.”
Cone said she would be “stomping” on students’ rights with a ban. “To me that seems punitive and excessive,” Cone said. “But to demand that they use good judgment, I think we have every right to do.”
Scott Cartwright, head coach of Cal Poly’s men’s and women’s golf teams, said the school shouldn’t have a written policy, but rather recommendations.
“There’s still freedom to do what they wish,” Cartwright said. “The thing we talk about is that they need to be aware of what they’re putting out there, and they are in the public eye.”
Conversations with athletes regarding social networking sites are repeated at the start of each quarter.
“They’re role models for young children,” Cone said. “We talk to them about making sure that anything that is on their Facebook pages would be appropriate for young children to be seeing.”
Three years ago, when the athletics department first became aware that athletes throughout the country were posting inappropriate photos for all to see, it started educating its own.
“When those started getting out in the media we made it a point of talking to student athletes and saying that they need to be aware,” said Brian Thurmond, Cal Poly Athletics’ media relations director. “What’s out there on Facebook is public information and anyone can download it. It’s amazing what turns up.”
Cone said since the education process started, Cal Poly athletes’ understandings of the issues have improved.
“As far as I can tell, they’ve used pretty good judgment,” she said.
Thurmond said the concern over social networking content extends into the athletes’ post-college lives.
“I’m finding out in terms of business and being with people, potential employers are starting to look at that,” Thurmond said. “This is not just something that is just for your friends. This is something that’s wide open for everybody to see and it could affect how you’re perceived.”
In addition to talking to students each quarter, Stephens started an athlete orientation program, which also stresses the importance of representing Cal Poly positively.
Coming from UCLA, Stephens witnessed firsthand the dangers social networking can pose.
“Athletes, I think, are targeted because of their profile or because of the media,” he said.
Because the sites allow people to post contact information, housing locations and even class schedules, safety can be put at risk.
“There were some instances (at UCLA) where it was actually almost like stalking occurred,” Stephens said. “It was a little bit scary.”
Of course, the trend isn’t exclusive to colleges. In the professional ranks, athletes have become more guarded in light of Web sites such as BadJocks.com and TheDirty.com pursuing pictures and videos capturing sports stars engaged in unsavory or even criminal activities.
Bad Jocks, whose Web site banner boasts the phrase, “Where COPS meets SportsCenter,” was the first to post photos of Catholic University’s women’s lacrosse team getting rowdy with a male stripper in a thong two years ago. The site also features a chart of sports figures with the highest blood-alcohol content.
Mustangs junior hurdler M.J. Robotham said the athletics department does a “good job” emphasizing potential consequences of inappropriate material.
“All the student athletes do a good job at keeping Facebook clean,” he said. “I’ve been to a couple of parties and whenever there is a camera, the student athletes are very careful of the pictures that are taken. The student athletes are very careful of what is posted, also, and will tell someone to delete the picture on Facebook.”
Cone said that if, hypothetically, a Cal Poly athlete were caught with inappropriate content on his or her profile – whether it be underage-drinking photos or obscene comments – the department would simply ask that it be removed.
“We’d probably just talk to them and tell them to change it,” Cone said. “If they refused to change it, I suppose it would be our right to have them not participate in athletics.”