Commentary

How much is too much online?

Schools aim to educate, insulate student-athletes from pitfalls of social networking

Originally Published: July 9, 2009
By Heather Dinich | ESPN.com

Editor's note: This is the final story in a four-part series examining the impact of online social networks on college athletics.

Former Florida State safety Myron Rolle is a popular guy -- he's got 4,971 friends, to be exact. (At least according to a recent total on his Facebook page.)

[+] EnlargeMyron Rolle
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIFormer Florida State safety Myron Rolle made a concerted effort to police his own profile on Facebook.

That's to be expected from an NFL-caliber athlete who also happens to be a Rhodes Scholar. While Rolle's accomplishments on the field and in the classroom have separated him from most of his classmates, his Facebook page always has been common ground.

After all, athletes are students, too.

Florida State, like many universities across the country, puts the bulk of the responsibility on its student-athletes to make smart decisions about what they post on their social networking sites. For high-profile athletes like Rolle, they have to be leery of who they "friend" and how much of their lives they choose to put on display. It's a balancing act between being a fun-loving college student and the face of the school's football team.

"It was a little different," said Rolle, who is training at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Fla., before heading to study at Oxford on Sept. 26. "For me personally, what I did, I policed my own site. I wanted people to think of me as that upstanding scholar-athlete. Anytime someone was thinking about tagging a picture of me, I'd make sure I'd look at it first and say, 'OK, is this picture OK? Would my mother appreciate this picture?'

"I didn't accept anyone on Facebook I didn't know. I didn't put any status updates that had curse words or foul language or just wouldn't be representative of who I am and who I want to be. As much as the school can do, each individual athlete has to look at himself and say, 'What do I want out there, and what kind of person do I want to look like on these sites?'"

Not everyone, obviously, comes across looking like Rolle, but there doesn't seem to be much universities can do about it.

I wanted people to think of me as that upstanding scholar-athlete. Anytime someone was thinking about tagging a picture of me, I'd make sure I'd look at it first and say, 'OK, is this picture OK? Would my mother appreciate this picture?'

-- Former FSU safety Myron Rolle

Officials from all six BCS conferences were contacted for this story, and none of the conferences has set specific policies for athletes' use of social networking sites. The SEC sends out a cautionary flier to all its first-year athletes and transfers, but leaves the role of watchdog to the individual athletic departments and coaches. For many schools, the athletic department officials are like worried parents who dole out unsolicited advice, step back and hope it sinks in.

"You can't stop it; you can only hope you advise well enough that they take the lead and heed the advice," said Greg Myford, associate athletic director for business relations and communications at Penn State. "Really, the approach we want to have is the approach we take with many different areas that have the potential for controversy, and that is, give our student-athletes, define what is largely acceptable or unacceptable, and then rely and trust that the student is going to take that information and act accordingly. We all know that sometimes not all do."

Penn State is one of several universities, along with Virginia and New Mexico, that have reached out to a third party, Sports Media Challenge, for some guidance with social networking. The company has helped universities and entire conferences embrace sites like Facebook and Twitter as marketing tools and ways of branding their athletic programs, but Sports Media Challenge president Kathleen Hessert also has been asked to help some schools set social networking guidelines for their athletes.

ACC Addresses Social Networking

ACC schools are trying to set guidelines for their student-athletes' use of online social networks. Good luck. For her part, this ACC blogger can't understand the appeal of Twitter, anyway.

Heather Dinich

"That's where a lot of the demand is coming from right now for our services," Hessert said. "They want social networking consulting, and part of that consulting is help us devise guidelines for what is appropriate and isn't appropriate here."

Hessert said one of the biggest deterrents for the student-athletes is the potential that future employers might be looking at their Facebook pages and that by posting inappropriate material, they could be jeopardizing their futures, but Hessert said the schools still need to set guidelines up front.

"For years now, everybody in college has been scared to death of Facebook, and they were trying to ban the athletes from it, and I'm like, 'Guys, you can't put the genie back in the bottle here,'" Hessert said. "Everybody needs to understand they can put anything up there they want but they have to be accountable for it. You set the guidelines up front and make it clear to everyone.

"In general, young people have a vastly different sense of what is private and what is public," she said. "They don't care about the things that a 50-year-old person cares about not knowing. In fact, they're proud of what a 50-year-old person would be embarrassed about."

[+] EnlargeGTech
Courtsey of Georgia Tech Sports InformationGeorgia Tech holds a seminar to advise its student-athletes to be mindful of their activity when using online social networks.

In its "Guidelines for the use of social networking sites," NC State warns that "coaches and athletic department administrators can and do monitor these web sites," as do the local police and sheriff's offices.

"We certainly always worry about what they post," NC State football coach Tom O'Brien said. "We spend a lot of time talking to them about what's acceptable and what's not acceptable. They have to understand it's going to follow them for life. Decisions you make at 3 o'clock in the morning aren't always the best."

It's not always party pictures, though, that can get athletes in trouble. Texas backup center Buck Burnette was dismissed from the team this past season after he posted an inflammatory message regarding President Barack Obama on his Facebook account.

Such scenarios raise a serious First Amendment issue, said ESPN.com senior writer and legal analyst Lester Munson.

"Most people in university settings would be extremely reluctant to try any kind of rule making or censorship of what their students do," Munson said. "There's almost no way to write a set of rules that would not immediately infringe on the First Amendment rights of all their students. These are college students. They would figure it out in a minute. Making rules would be a bigger problem than having no rules. I don't have any doubt about it. They have nothing to gain and a lot to lose."

Texas sports information director John Bianco said the Longhorns don't have a written policy, but the athletes are warned pretty regularly not to post anything that would embarrass the university or their families. Bianco said coach Mack Brown tells his players that if it's something that would upset your mother, it's going to upset the university, too.

"I don't think we feel like we can tell them not to have something," Bianco said of having pages on the sites, especially when many working adults are using the same ones.

North Carolina prefaces its written policy with the statement "UNC supports and encourages an individual's expression of First Amendment rights of free speech." The policy states, "The University and the Department of Athletics does not place any restrictions on the use of these sites by student-athletes." The university does, however, offer guidelines and caution.

Cricket Lane, UNC's assistant athletic director for student-athlete development, gives a presentation to the Tar Heels at the beginning of the school year on social networking. She has the first-years "friend" her mainly because it's the best way to contact and communicate with them, but also because it allows her to monitor their pages.

In September, Lane will bring in an attorney to speak with the athletes about the Internet.

Arizona is one of the few schools that has instituted a rule requiring all student-athletes to set their privacy setting on Facebook to "Private" so only their friends can see their personal information.

"We don't want to restrict them from being a part of Facebook and the social networking world," said Gretchen E. Bouton, compliance director at Arizona. "Every day it becomes a bigger thing. We basically wanted to just protect them. We have them in mind. You see so many situations where pictures can come out in the Internet that might not be appropriate or embarrassing or puts one of our student-athletes in danger. We're just looking out for their best interests. Hopefully we're being proactive instead of being reactive."

The question, though, is whether or not all of Arizona's athletes will abide by the new rule, which will become effective this fall.

"We have 400 student-athletes," Bouton said. "There's no way anyone is going to sit there and go through each one to see if it's set to private. This is something we're putting in our policy; we're asking them to do it. Can we force them? If the coaches want to check their players to make sure. … If I were a coach, I would."

Even though he has graduated, Rolle still is careful with the content he posts on his Facebook page. He's branching out now, though, to the latest social forum. A recent message Rolle posted on his wall?

"Now on Twitter …"

Heather Dinich covers college sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at espn.hd@hotmail.com. Check out her ACC football blog.