2006: Internet networking creates pitfalls for athletes
Golfweek search for highly ranked junior golfers on MySpace.com, the country’s most popular social-networking Web site, uncovered some disturbing revelations.
One message sent between players read: “whats up ... lets get wasted!!! at (an American Junior Golf Association tournament).”
Another page included racist language and listed “Male Porn Stars” underneath the heading “Heroes.” And among numerous instances of profanity, another player wrote: “we will rape the west (AJGA Canon Cup team) next year.”
Of the more than 20 online profiles researched by Golfweek, the majority were “private” – meaning only visitors with permission have access. But others were free for the public to view after performing a simple search.
Therein lies the essence of a 21st-century problem: Indiscreet content within online groups is exposing student-athletes to disciplinary actions – perhaps even placing their scholarships at risk.
Furthermore, it has become an issue for junior golf organizations and college administrators struggling to balance the need to protect their institutions against athletes’ privacy.
That struggle recently manifested itself at the AJGA, which disciplined several members based on an accusation that they had participated in an online group that mocked a fellow competitor. After conducting an internal investigation, the AJGA dropped the disciplinary actions (see story, p4).
“Not a week goes by where I don’t find a new case. . . . There are examples of athlete discipline, suspension and removal from schools at every level, from Division I all the way down to NAIA,” said Bill Smith, an expert on online social networking and associate athletic director for communications in the University of Arkansas women’s athletic department. In July, Smith made a presentation focused on social-networking sites at the College Sports Information Directors of America convention in Nashville, Tenn.
“(College students) have grown up with computers and they do not see threats from computers. They trust computers. They trust the Internet,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, what they’re doing is signing away incredible amounts of their personal privacy rights, and they do not realize it. And it is not until the adult world comes walking in that they realize that they’re not in a private place.”
Last year, two swimmers at Louisiana State University were kicked off the team for criticizing their coaches on Facebook.com. Four San Diego State women’s soccer players were suspended this year after sneering remarks about the team’s practices and photos of the players drinking alcohol were
posted on MySpace. In August, The Albuquerque Tribune exposed a Facebook group titled “Hard Drinkers, Let’s Drink Hard,” which was started by a University of New Mexico football player and reportedly included 28 New Mexico athletes, 11 of whom were underage.
Student-athletes have attracted the most attention when social-networking sites have been probed, leaving coaches and administrators with difficult decisions.
For example, athletes at Loyola University Chicago, a private school, have been banned from using Facebook and told that violating the policy could result in loss of scholarships.
Kent State University instituted a similar policy in June, prompting protests from First Amendment advocates. The university dropped the policy in July. Still, there are rules: Kent State athletes must make their profiles “private” and allow coaches and academic advisers to monitor them.
Smith said there is still no “definitive legal definition of what a university could do in regards
to this.” But he added that it has become “the law of the land that most schools in America have some sort of social-networking policy,” essentially warning their athletes that if they do anything on the Internet that could cause harm to the image of the school, action will be taken. Administrators also are taking steps to educate student-athletes about the consequences of ill-advised content on social-networking sites.
“We tell them whatever they put on, just assume that everybody is looking at it,” said Arizona women’s golf coach Greg Allen.
During a recent job interview in New York, Vicky Meyers, a member of the LSU women’s golf team in 2002-06, was asked a question about her boyfriend. Meyers hadn’t brought up the subject. The interviewer told her the company routinely checks the MySpace and Facebook profiles of job candidates.
“When I used an example of one of their teammates (Meyers), it really hit home,” said LSU women’s coach Karen Bahnsen. Several other coaches, who requested anonymity, told Golfweek they check the MySpace pages of recruits.
“The person that ultimately gets hurt is the athlete,” said Smith, noting that today’s student-athletes aren’t necessarily behaving any worse then their predecessors.
The difference is that they are putting their behavior on display to the world.
“This is about this kid four years from now,” Smith said. “There’s a job fair and no one is inviting them, and they’re wondering why. It’s because they’ve all been researched. And that’s a cold, hard fact.”