First Amendment topicsAbout the First Amendment
News Story
print this   Print

Colleges struggle with student athletes' Web use

By The Associated Press

DENVER — Welcome — although it's really not the right greeting for college coaches and administrators — to the Facebook, YouTube, MySpace era. Cyberspace is the place to be, but often not the place to be seen, for student athletes.

For the past several years on campuses nationwide, coaches and athletic department personnel collectively have cringed at the thought of what can show up in cyberspace on those sites that demonstrate objectionable behavior by student athletes.

"It is a hot topic in college athletic departments," said Christine Susemihl, senior associate athletic director at Colorado State. "Even institutions that several years ago were not touching it find they have to. They at least have to have dialogue with their student athletes."

The broad question has become how to deal with it.

Administrators at Florida State and Kentucky have issued ultimatums to their athletes to be careful what they post, according to USA Today, and Loyola University in Chicago forbids its athletes to belong to such social-networking sites.

A sampling of Division I schools in Colorado shows a variety of approaches toward dealing with such sites, though all say it is an issue they are monitoring.

At the University of Colorado, associate athletic director Ceal Barry believes putting the onus on individual sports to nudge their student athletes toward responsible behavior is the best course.

"I feel like it's very difficult to legislate," said Barry, the school's former women's basketball coach. "We don't have a department-wide policy. ... What are you going to do, make (offenders) run laps?"

Instead, Barry said, CU's student handbook features a section outlining guidelines on cyber activities developed by the student- athlete advisory committee. The belief was, "If it came from their peers, it would be more effective."

In most instances, it has been. But along the way, there have been slip-ups.

CU's first notorious cyber incident occurred in 2005, when starting offensive tackle Clint O'Neal and his girlfriend, cross country runner Jackie Zeigle, were issued tickets by campus police for sending a racially threatening Facebook message to one of Zeigle's teammates, Greg Castro.

O'Neal told the Daily Camera of Boulder after the incident became public that the "whole situation is out of context" and was "not racial, in my mind."

The on-campus outcome: O'Neal was suspended from the football team by interim head coach Mike Hankwitz, who had replaced fired head coach Gary Barnett, and Zeigle quit the cross country team.

In 2007, six track and field athletes were kicked off the team after posting online photos of themselves in mock sexual positions. Compounding the problem, they posed in CU athletic garb and were shown toasting each other with what appeared to be alcohol.

After the photos appeared on Facebook, they were sent to athletic department officials, and athletic director Mike Bohn approved the dismissals.

CU spokesman Bronson Hilliard, at the time, said the Facebook postings went "well beyond cute, college hijinks," and he expressed hope that all students and student athletes realized cyber sites such as Facebook and MySpace were not private and could be viewed by anyone.

"You're a student athlete, and you represent the University of Colorado, and you want to represent the university well," said Hannah Skildum, a senior guard on the CU women's basketball team. "We're not normal students. We're held at a higher standard."

In 2006, several CU volleyball players were cleared by the athletic department after a fraternity alumnus not connected with the team discovered embarrassing photos on a Web site and e-mailed them to administrators.

The photos allegedly depicted hazing, showing freshmen student athletes wearing animal costumes and another underage volleyball player posing with a keg.

Dave Plati, CU's director of athletic media relations, said the school was "not going to get into the censorship business. We're just giving them smart advice."

Football coach Dan Hawkins tells his players, "If I request to see your page, you'd better let me in and let me see it. Everybody's kind of got their own standards. I tell them if your mom can see it, and neither you nor she is embarrassed, then it's OK. But if your mom can't look at it, then it's probably not right."

Hawkins has talked individually with his players about cyber sites. Asked if being a "cyber policeman" presents a recurring nightmare for coaches, Hawkins answered, "The nature of this job — everything concerns you, everything is a potential nightmare. The good news-bad news about our jobs is, we're teaching kids how to manage their money ... their Facebook ... to take care of parking.

"We basically are doing parenting. ... We spend gobs of time with that. So it's always a concern that somebody is going to do something inappropriate and not consistent with our values, and embarrass themselves and us."

CSU puts the responsibility on student athletes if they choose to use social-networking sites.

"We do not have a policy that governs their use of these sites," Susemihl said. "But we do talk to the student athletes about using them responsibly and about things that are getting out there on these sites.

"We would really rather help them be more responsible about it than just say you just can't do it, because, frankly, I think that is difficult to enforce. We're more interested in helping them act responsible than saying you can't do this, you can't do that."

CSU hasn't had any incidents in regard to social-networking sites.

"I'm not saying there aren't some stupid things going on, but not of major concern," Susemihl said. "We're not naive about it. In this electronic day and age, people have to realize it's out there. You can go back to how many coaches have got caught doing something because of the Internet. It's not just a student-athlete issue. It's out there. Kids have to learn how to control the information that's out there."

Susemihl said athletic director Paul Kowalczyk meets with each squad at the beginning of the year, and social networking sites are one of the things he talks to them about.

"What we try to stress is that whether you like it or not, being a student athlete kind of carries a unique set of expectations and you are always representing yourself, your team and Colorado State University," Susemihl said.

The University of Denver hockey team instituted a policy a little more than two years ago to monitor what athletes have posted on their social-networking sites.

Usually, DU's volunteer assistant coach, a position held this season by University of Colorado graduate Michael Zucker, is in charge of making sure the Pioneers are not stepping out of line online. All DU hockey players, whether they have an account on Facebook, MySpace or any other social service, must include Zucker on their network of friends.

Head coach George Gwozdecky said there have been several instances the past few years when he has had to sit down with one of his players to tell him some of the material he had posted was inappropriate.

"From a social standpoint, it can be a good thing, but it can be abused terribly," Gwozdecky said. "Our student athletes are advised of the pluses of these accounts but also of the many dangers. Not just for the immediate future, but even down the road. There's just some horror stories out there of these young kids and what they've had to deal with for one mistake.

"For the most part, nowadays I think these kids, at DU or anywhere, I think they're educated but they're very, very naive. These things can be abused so easily, and a lot of people never think it's going to happen to them."

Athletes at the Air Force Academy live with restrictions most student athletes never experience, but none of them deals with social-networking sites.

"We don't restrict the use of social networking," Air Force Academy spokesman John Van Winkle said. "We do give them guidance and hold them accountable. There are greater expectations of cadets, and we lay that out pretty clearly for them."

Academy athletes, though, are instructed to be aware of other things — such as not posting personal information and refraining from affiliating themselves with topics that are potentially offensive.

"We've got greater restrictions on them from the Air Force standpoint because we expect them, whether they are on duty or off duty, in uniform or out of uniform, and whether on the phone or on Facebook, that they are a cadet and a representative of the Air Force Academy," Van Winkle said.


Ind. schools warn students to watch what they say online

Administrators say blog postings can be disruptive to education; critics say schools shouldn't be able to punish kids for comments posted off-campus. 10.02.06

People reconsider posting personal details on public Web sites

'They're now more conscious that information they post online can be used in ways they didn't intend it to be,' says professor. 01.02.07

Internet postings prompt libel lawsuits
But cyber-law expert says economics may prevent an explosion of litigation over defamatory claims against individuals. 03.21.07

Facebook photos sting Minn. high school students
Some stage walkout at school to protest punishment of students seen partying on social-networking pages. 01.11.08

Web site provides 'juicy' campus details, prompts backlash
Although students normally favor Internet openness, some fear damage to their reputations and have asked administrators to ban JuicyCampus. 02.20.08

Facebook nudity policy draws nursing moms' ire
Online hangouts might simulate a public place, but they're still private Web sites where the company — not the Constitution or state laws — is king. 01.04.09

Ohio State lifts Facebook posting ban
University blocked all comments last week after graduate student asked about school president's service on energy-company board. 04.07.09

Texas Tech player's tweet about tardiness ticks off coach
Mike Leach bars student athletes from using Twitter and says their Facebook pages will be monitored. 09.29.09

News summary page
View the latest news stories throughout the First Amendment Center Online.

Last system update: Friday, April 23, 2010 | 22:05:21
About this site
About the First Amendment
About the First Amendment Center
How to contribute
First Amendment programs
State of the First Amendment

Religious liberty in public schools
First Reports
Supreme Court
First Amendment publications
First Amendment Center history
Freedom Sings™
First Amendment

Congressional Research Service reports
Guest editorials
FOI material
The First Amendment

Lesson plans
Contact us
Privacy statement
Related links