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Athletes Walk Thin Line When On The Internet

Heights Editor

Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 20:01

In a split second, 140 characters can set off a firestorm.

One day before the Boston College women’s soccer team kicked off against Penn State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, an otherwise ordinary game in the middle of November, sparked attention across the nation.

BC sophomore forward Stephanie McCaffrey posted a series of tweets on Twitter mocking the sexual abuse scandal that led to sanctions for the entire athletic department at Penn State.

“I wonder if well get into the visitors locker room at Penn state! I hear the showers are weiners only, 10 and under,” read one tweet from McCaffrey. A Penn State blog caught on to the tweets, and the post was picked up by ESPN and The Huffington Post.

While many student-athletes and coaches use Twitter and Facebook to build excitement and publicity for their sports and their schools, mistakes are inevitably made, and can be catastrophic. Every athletic department in college sports is quickly trying to find the best ways to use and to monitor social media.

Two weeks after the McCaffrey fiasco, the social media policies in the BC athletic department remain unchanged. The department put head coaches in charge of creating rules that are consistent with individual team philosophies, according to associate athletic director of media relations Chris Cameron.

Two social media experts did meet with the BC coaches and players this semester, however, to educate them about the power of even the smallest post, and that education process has continued.

The athletic department also gave out cards this week to student-athletes with a list of things to do and not to do on Facebook and Twitter. It advises them to keep their accounts private, accept friend or follower requests only from people they know, post positive statements about their team or other teams, and thank their fans for support—but not to repeat anything said in the locker room, post about a tough loss before getting a chance to sleep on it, complain about their lives, engage in “Twitter beefs,” or use Twitter as a form of text messaging.

While universities including North Carolina and Kentucky pay up to $10,000 a year for companies to monitor their student athletes’ social media posts, BC has a simpler approach. The sports information directors keep track of most of the student athletes’ social media accounts on their own.

The athletic department also sees helping students understand social media and its potential impact as a more important goal than just acting as “Big Brother,” according to Cameron.

Warren Zola, an expert on student athlete rights and an assistant dean in the Carroll School of Management, agreed.

“The Jesuit tradition talks about educating the whole person,” Zola said. “Now, St. Ignatius may not have envisioned social media, but I think that our job on this campus would be to educate student athletes to understand social media and the potential impacts it has.”

There also are potential legal dangers in limiting student athletes’ rights on social media, Zola said. He cited the First and the Fourteenth amendments as the main constraints for athletic departments in their attempts to control players on Facebook and Twitter.

“Now, clearly, Boston College as a private institution has greater flexibility to impose restraints than a public institution would, like the University of Kentucky, which has,” Zola said. “But, again, I’m not as concerned about this from a legal perspective as I am from a university having the opportunity to help educate its student-athletes on all parts of society and growing up.”

Head men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue has an active Twitter account, along with about half of BC’s head coaches, but he does not allow his players to have accounts of their own.

“At their age, I’m doing them a favor by taking it out of their hands,” Donahue said. “If they’re a regular college student and they say something that they regret, like most kids do at this age, and that we all do, then it’s forgotten. Unfortunately, they may make a mistake that gets magnified, and they’d have to live with it.”

Every coach, just like every teacher, has a right to his or her own philosophy, Zola said.

“For example, if a coach restricts anything—such as wearing jeans to road games, or Twitter, or candy, or alcohol for those who are legally of age—there may be reasons for that that have to do less with using that media and more with building team and dedication and all of the reasons why Boston College values athletics as part of educating the whole person,” Zola said.

Zola does, however, think that student-athletes’ use of social media is inevitable.

“I think that any institution cannot stop its students from using social media,” he said. “There can be policies, but ultimately students are going to make their own decisions, and as student-athletes are educated on how to use it properly, there needs to be some level of trust by a university, by an athletic department, by an athletic director, and by a head coach with the student. So, if I’m a head coach and I can’t trust how my student athletes are going to use Twitter, how can I trust them in an overtime game to run a play to help us win a game on national television?”

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