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TMCNet:  Social-networking sites full of risks and benefits for student-athletes

[December 14, 2008]

Social-networking sites full of risks and benefits for student-athletes

Dec 14, 2008 (New Haven Register - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Patrick Sellers, the assistant coach for the UConn men's basketball team, looks around at all the communication devices owned by the players and can only shake his head in amazement.

"I tell them all the time, and they laugh at me, 'When I was in college, all I had was this square, black beeper,'" said Sellers, who graduated from Central Connecticut State in 1991. "That's it."

It's a very different world these days. Facebook and MySpace, Blackberries and iPhones, text messages, emails and camera phones keep kids in almost constant communication with their friends, families or whomever. Sellers' black beeper, like the phone booth, is little more than a relic of the past.

"It's incredible how kids can interact on Facebook or MySpace and also be text-messaging and e-mailing, while carrying on a regular conversation, listening to an iPod or watching TV," Quinnipiac men's basketball coach Tom Moore said. "It's just sort of an expected part of the college generation today. It's certainly a far cry from my generation or my parents' generation."

It's the social-networking sites -- MySpace and, particularly, Facebook -- that are the most popular among student-athletes. They're also the most risky.

Post a photo of yourself on your own or someone else's Facebook page holding a beer at a party or engaging in some other objectionable behavior and you could find yourself a star on badjocks.com -- not to mention suspended or kicked off your team, even expelled from school. Post a racist or profane message that embarrasses yourself, your team and your university, and you could face similar punishment.

"We tell kids," UConn compliance director Alicia Alford Queally said, "if they wouldn't want their mother or grandmother to look at it and be disappointed, don't post it."

And yet it happens all the time. Look no further than Quinnipiac, where a freshman basketball player, who had previously been the target of racially harassing phone calls, was recently expelled for posting racist threats on a fellow African-American student's Facebook page. In the past year, in fact, four area colleges -- Quinnipiac, Southern Connecticut State, Yale and the University of New Haven -- have each had student-athletes find their way onto badjocks.com, for varying reasons.

And there's the added threat of a friend, or even a total stranger, posting an objectionable message on your site, or an unflattering photo of you on their own page.

"It's like getting a tattoo," Moore said. "When you put it on, it's permanent. I know there are some things where you can put a picture on and take it off, but it seems once it's put up there, it's up there, and it's a part of you that's up there. That can be dangerous."

A NEW PHENOMENON
Perhaps the most alarming thing about Facebook is how quickly it has become such a fabric of college students' lives. When Ed Peters, a senior offensive lineman on the Southern Connecticut State football team, arrived on campus four years ago, Facebook wasn't even available at the school.

Today?
"I'd say everybody on our football team has Facebook," Peters said.
Indeed, facebook has recently surpassed MySpace in terms of monthly unique visitors, largely because of its popularity on college campuses. Founded in 2004 by students at Harvard, Facebook membership was originally limited solely to Harvard students, then to any Ivy League student, and eventually to any college student with a legitimate university e-mail address.

Ultimately, it was expanded to high school students, then to anyone aged 13 and over. Facebook now has more than 120 million users worldwide, according to its own Web site.

In a nutshell, here's how it works: membership is free, so long as you provide a valid email address. Once you're signed up, you can design your page any way you'd like -- with photos, video downloads, quotes, and "status updates" that tell people what's on your mind at the time, among other features.

Profiles are usually hidden from the general public and can only be accessed by "friends." To become a friend of a fellow Facebook user, you must send a friend request and be confirmed, or confirm a request from someone else. Hence, the verb "friendrequest" has been introduced to the modern-day vernacular.

That's where things can start to get tricky for the student-athlete. Members of the UConn men's basketball team, for instance, are high-profile personalities in this state. They can get hundreds of friend-requests per week, making it difficult to decipher who they want to accept and who are strangers who may only want to delve as much as they can into the players' personal lives, or post messages on the "wall-towall" feature each page offers.

Seniors Jeff Adrien and Craig Austrie each have more than 4,500 friends.
"If I don't know you, I won't accept you," said junior center Hasheem Thabeet, who called himself "so swaggerlicious" on a recent Facebook status update. "A lot of people from different places will "friend" you. When you lose or do something bad, some other fans will write something on your profile."

Kemba Walker, a freshman, takes an opposite tack.
"I accept all UConn people," Walker said. "Some people who friend-request me on Facebook and MySpace, I see at the games. Some of them actually live in my dorm, so I get a chance to meet them. It gives me a chance to meet other people, not just my teammates."

Senior A.J. Price, however, isn't a fan of the social-networking sites.
"Personally, I don't have either Facebook or MySpace," Price said. "There's too much access, and it becomes too hectic. So many people hit you on a regular basis that you basically start accepting everybody, and anybody becomes your buddy.

"I don't think it's smart for any athlete, at any level, to have those types of pages."
Of course, it's not just members of the highest-profile team in Connecticut that get friendrequests from total strangers. As a member of the SCSU field hockey team, Cheshire native Grace Martha is hardly a household name. But she has accepted a few friend-requests from people she hardly knew: a pair of men who used to work in the SCSU equipment room and still follow all SCSU sports, as well as a female alumnus who has donated a substantial amount of money to the school's athletic foundation.

Peters said he and other teammates have received requests from SCSU football fans, but he usually only accepts them from people he knows or fellow Southern students.

Peters also recalls former SCSU quarterback Steve Armstrong getting a friend-request from a rival defensive end shortly before a game a few years ago. He assumes the end wanted to trash-talk, but Armstrong didn't take the bait.

"I think it's a great, helpful tool," Peters said of Facebook. "You've just got to be careful."
FINDING TROUBLE
Last April, shortly after the Huskies were unceremoniously ousted from the NCAA tournament, UConn guard Craig Austrie posted the following Facebook status update: "Craig Austrie is in need of 2,000 dollars right now if u are a true UConn basketball fan and you're (sic) rich and can spare 2,000 dollars ... e-mail me ... Thanks."

"It was a joke," said Austrie, now a senior. "(Compliance) made me take it down. It was obviously a joke, it wasn't a big deal."

Queally said she had no recollection of the matter.
Fortunately for Austrie and the Huskies, nothing became of the ill-advised post. Other studentathletes haven't been so lucky.

In a similar situation to Austrie's, University of Buffalo top scorer Andy Robinson posted this (unedited) message on his Facebook page last April: "I am paying anybody who have read the book "there are no children here' by Alex Kotlowitz $30-40 which in some classes you have to read at UB (even more money if you have to read the book a little more!!) to write a 3-4 page paper, on a couple questions which was assigned."

Robinson was suspended from offseason workouts and from the Bulls' first three games this season. Ironically, he and Austrie met on the court a little over a week ago in Buffalo.

There have been more serious transgressions. Shortly after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, University of Texas lineman Buck Burnette posted on his Facebook page: "all the hunters gather up, we have a #$%&er in the whitehouse (sic)." Burnette quickly offered an apology, saying on his page: "Clearly I have made a mistake and apologized for it and will pay for it. I received it as a text message from an acquaintance and immaturely put it up on Facebook in the light of the election. I'm (sic) not racist and apologize for offending you. I grew up on a ranch in a small town where that was a real thing and I need to grow up."

Burnette certainly did pay for it -- he was kicked off the Longhorn team.
Then there's the bizarre, curious case of Quinnipiac.
Back in November, Harold Washington, 18, a freshman on the men's basketball team, went to police along with two fellow African-American teammates after receiving threatening and racially motivated phone calls. Soon, Charles Merritt, Washington's white roommate, was arrested for making the calls and later expelled from school.

A few weeks later, however, Washington was arrested for allegedly using Facebook as a tool to anonymously post racist messages on one of his fellow victims' home pages.

The entire situation shook the university, and particularly the basketball team. It also opened the eyes of Moore, the Bobcats' second-year coach, to the potential hazards of social-networking sites.

"Dealing with the players through the whole ordeal, it sort of enlightened my coaching staff and me to how computer-savvy kids are these days," Moore said. "Through technology, they can carry on so many different conversations with different people, all at the same time."

Moore took note of it while spending time in the players' dorms during the situation.
"It's a little intimidating to think how open their lives are," Moore said. "Once they start a Facebook page or a MySpace page and invite people to come in, it's scary to think how much of their lives are out there."

But Moore said he doesn't prohibit his players from having Facebook and/or MySpace accounts.
"It's a fine line. As coaches, there are so many issues like this that come up that border on how controlling you're going to be as a coach. At what point are they beholden to you off the court because they're on scholarship? Are you going to force guys to cut their hair, wear a certain colored T-shirt under the uniform? This is another one right in that gray area. It seems to me, as an outsider, it's an important part of socializing in college at this time. It's not something I want to tell my 13 scholarship guys they can't be a part of, but maybe in workshops, etc., we can give constant reminders of the risks that come with it."

PLENTY OF POSITIVES
While there undeniably are risks for student-athletes using Facebook, there are plenty of benefits, too. As Walker stated, it's a chance for some athletes who are constantly busy with practice, games, travel and schoolwork to get to know their fellow students. As Martha mentioned, it provides a chance for student-athletes to interact with members of the neighboring community -- and with opponents, too.

Martha recently played in an all-star game in Kentucky against seniors from other schools in the conference. "When I got home, I got requests from some of them, which was really cool," Martha said. "It's fairly easy, simpler than sending an e-mail. It's easier to check updates on what's going on in their lives."

Facebook also allows team members to communicate with each other. Most college sports teams have some sort of Facebook page, on which messages can be conveyed as to when meetings are, where captain's practices will be held, or simply what a great game they played the other night.

"A lot of schools are going to Facebook for invitations, getting the word out for programs," said Amy Backus, Yale's compliance director.

It's so effective, in fact, that Yale administrators recently asked students whether e-mail was still a productive tool to get information out on campus, or if Facebook was the better way to go. (Turns out, e-mail still works just fine).

University of New Haven athletic director Debbie Chin pointed out that the NCAA actually is encouraging interaction among student-athletes through Facebook and other sites.

"It's the way of students of today, it's how they communicate with each other," Chin said. "It can be a little troublesome because they can't communicate one on one, they're so used to texting, going on MySpace, Facebook. That's how they meet people. But they're probably more savvy than us in terms of picking out the good and the bad."

Indeed, none of the area colleges ban their student-athletes from using the sites, leaving it up to them to use good judgment (and, in some cases, their coaches and/or compliance directors to keep tabs on what they're posting).

Still, other athletic departments across the country, including DePaul and Minnesota-Duluth, have taken the drastic step of banning student-athletes' use of the social-networking sites altogether. Those schools are still very much in the minority -- for now.

"People have mixed emotions about (Facebook) because it is a social-networking tool, and you do have your everyday life on this Web site," Martha said. "Being a student-athlete, you shouldn't partake in alcohol or drugs, but inevitably some do. As a safety precaution, you should put no pictures of you participating in those activities. You have to be careful what you let people put pictures up of, and what people put on your wall."

It certainly is a very different world from the days of the square, black beeper.
To see more of New Haven Register, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to
http://www.nhregister.com. Copyright (c) 2008, New Haven Register, Conn.
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