Virtually every college athlete in the country is on Facebook now. This makes sense, it’s hard not to be on Facebook if you’re under 35, impossible if you’re under 25. But Facebook has become a public relations minefield for major athletic programs across the country. Whether it’s players being kicked out of school for making a threat in their status message (Wake Forest), posting racist comments about the newly elected President (Texas), setting off an internet firestorm over whether or not you actually posted messages on another person’s wall (Georgia) or just having your idiotic responses to quizzes posted all over for others to enjoy (Michigan). This is just the tip of the Facebook iceberg, every program is in danger at every moment of every day. All of this attention and all of this danger raises an intriguing question: Is it time for athletic departments to ban their athletes from having social media profiles on Facebook, MySpace, and the like?
This week the University of Arizona took action to combat the dangers of Facebook, announcing that all of their athletes in every sport must set their profiles to private. Setting the profile to private means that only those people you select as friends can see your profile. Otherwise the profile remains visible to the entire network (generally your college). How serious is Arizona about the new policy? Athletes who don’t comply risk losing their scholarships if their online conduct fails to “reflect the high standards of honor and dignity” expected by the school.
But Arizona’s policy reflects a tenuous middle ground, once a student accepts a friend request from anyone, their profile becomes accessible. Putting this into context, while researching my new book, one University of Tennessee official confessed to creating fake profiles and then friending the athletes to keep tabs on them. How did he get the athletes to add him as a friend? He took the best looking girl he could find on the internet and built a fake profile around her. When the attractive girl’s profile picture showed up in their friend requests, bang, they all accepted.
Fish meet bait.
The official would then monitor the page to find out if there was anything controversial there. But this was just a cursory check, officials can’t monitor hundreds or thousands of athletes every minute of every day. Inevitably things slip through the cracks. It’s why the athletes I trained with for the NFL Combine in 2008 all talked about what a tremendous issue Facebook had become for them. Quoting from the link:
“Thursday morning begins with talk of Myspace and Facebook. Specifically how much of a danger both of these networking sites are for college athletes. (Arkansas wide receiver) Marcus Monk and (Purdue wide receiver) Dorien Bryant lead the discussion. “We used to have these parties called Edward Fortyhands at Purdue. You had to have a forty taped to each of your hands, and have them finished before you could get them untaped. Everybody went to the parties, and there was a picture of me doing it. One day we got in trouble because Coach Tiller had a manager put all the pictures up on a slideshow, and then had us sit down and watch the pictures that they’d found of us. At the end Coach Tiller said, ‘I want every single one of these pictures gone in two days or you have to answer to me.’ We cleared that s**t up right fast.”
Monk joins the conversation. “Same with Coach (Houston) Nutt. He walked into the front of the room with a big stack of pictures and papers and stuff and slammed it all down on the top of the table and said, ‘I’ve got stuff on all y’all. Get it cleaned up.’ That’s why I’m not on none of them. Myspace, Facebook, none of them.”
Antwan Stewart, combine trainer and former Tennessee defensive back, chimes in, “Oh man, Coach Fulmer killed us about that. One day he walked into the meeting room with the newspaper in his hand-they were doing a story about the pictures we had up — and said, “Which one of you dumba***s — that’s the way he always started talking when someone got in trouble — has been putting pictures up online? I want them down and I want them down now.”
What’s more, it’s not only the things that an athlete might say on their page, it’s what their friends might write on their wall. Athletes not only have to be responsible for themselves, they have to police others. And as if that weren’t enough, they have to worry about whether or not photos of them are being posted by others online. Once they’ve been “tagged” in a photo, they have to remove the tag or it becomes visible to everyone. For colleges, they have to worry about undesirables: agents, stalkers, those with ulterior motives being able to easily contact their most popular players. Finally, many athletes include their email addresses, physical addresses, or even, amazingly, their cell phone numbers. It’s a willful blindness that comes from being raised in a digitally public arena. I’ve argued before that at some point the prevalence of Facebook heralds a new social order, Mutually Assured Facebook Destruction. My thesis being that if you have a Facebook profile something could destroy you as easily as you could destroy someone else. So everyone has equal deterrence and minor controversies don’t become major.
But that’s not the present day case with celebrities, and make no mistake, major college athletes are celebrities. I’m waiting for something that I know is coming, when a rival student holds incriminating information on an athlete and waits to unleash that information on the blogosphere in the week leading up to a big game. Can you imagine the ethical issues raised? What if a Michael Phelps-esque bong photo finds it’s way onto facebook featuring a star quarterback? It rapidly disappears, but a rival fan has saved it. For a couple of months all is silent, and then that fan heads out to Las Vegas and drops a good amount of money on the line. Then he or she releases the photo online and waits for the inevitable suspension to ensue. Bang, he pockets the difference on the line, his team wins, and he walks away with a kiling.
I guarantee you that a story line similar to this will happen in the next three years. Guarantee it. Just wait.
As a lawyer, I can tell you that a college has the right to make this Facebook exclusion rule for its student-athletes so long as it’s applied evenly. That’s why I think a college would need to restrict all athletes, from ladies lacrosse goalies to quarterbacks, to ensure that it’s being applied fairly. I think singling out specific sports would reap a whirlwind of first amendment issues. As is, scholarship athletes at many schools sign a code of conduct agreement that is more stringent than that of a general athlete. This would be similar. Unpopular, but similar.
Kent State University has already flirted with an outright ban of Facebook for student-athletes. They backtracked after public criticism, choosing to encourage their athletes to embrace the site’s privacy filters. Being the first college to announce an outright ban would bring media attention, much of it unfavorable, but is it the responsibility of a university to be popular or right? Would most parents really mind?
That leaves us with what is probably the ultimate question: First, is it fair to make all athletes at a school take an action because some of their fellow athletes are likely to cause problems for them? And, second, has Facebook become so fundamental to the collegiate experience that restricting access to it only leads to further isolation of athletes from their campus peers? I think both of these are really tough questions that don’t have easy answers. And I think policies like the University of Arizona’s, which is no doubt motivated by the dangers discussed above, while well-intentioned, are akin to being halfway pregnant. Either you are protected from Facebook revelations or you aren’t. Right now, despite Arizona’s new policy, their student-athletes are still a posting away from public danger and the university isn’t much better protected from embarrassment or worse. The Arizona policy relies upon a more antiquated notion of what a “friend” is. Many people have Facebook friends they wouldn’t even recognize in public. How do you know who is a snake in the grass and who’s no threat at all?
Colleges are trying to come up with policies that work for social media, but right now their answers aren’t really answers at all. More scandals are coming. Until then, the only guaranteed way to stay safe is to voluntarily abstain from Facebook. And we all know how well abstinence works for college kids. Right now, the ball is entirely in the college administrator’s court.