Making Magic

Like a magician’s hat, the Internet is bursting with possibilities for today’s athletic administrator. The trick is understanding how to pull out the good from the bad.

By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 12.6, Oct/Nov 2000, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1206/magic.htm

To some people, the Internet is like a three-ring circus. There’s a lot of commotion and many different attractions vying for your attention. It’s magical, it’s exciting, and it’s even a little scary.
Others compare the Internet to the wild, wild west of old television shows. There aren’t many rules, and even fewer sheriffs around to enforce them.
But no matter which image you prefer, you don’t have to let the circus atmosphere and virtual gunfights go unchecked. Today’s technology has given every person with a computer and a modem the opportunity to easily join the activity on the Internet.
This has created challenges for athletic administrators who are concerned about negative messages, including some with threats. But it also presents opportunities for administrators to more easily exchange ideas, disseminate and gather information, and keep track of routine matters, such as officials assignments and ticket selling.
Like most tools, the Internet can be very helpful when used correctly and harmful when used incorrectly. So it’s important to know the benefits and drawbacks of today’s technology and act accordingly.

Taming Chat Room Talk
One prime area of concern for athletic administrators is the chat rooms and bulletin boards where decorum and civility sometimes take leave and discussions degenerate into little more than volleys of vulgar boasts, put-downs, and threats. Certainly not all, or even most, chat room and bulletin board sites fit this description, but athletic directors should be aware that such exchanges may take place, and that student-athletes and coaches may be involved as subjects or even participants.
“What’s unfortunate is that you have a number of bulletin boards where people can banter back and forth anonymously,” says John Johnson, Director of Communications for the Michigan High School Athletic Association. “People can get pretty brave when they don’t have to put their name and their face out there along with their comments.”
That was the situation last winter in Western Massachusetts when a post on a local Web forum threatened members of a rival high school basketball team saying, “We got shot guns and stuff ... Come on up here and see what’s gonna happen.”
A game involving the schools was postponed and later played without any fans present. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) called for the forum to be shut down and barred the Web site from covering the state basketball playoffs. A state court later required the MIAA to allow the site to cover the tournament, and the forum remains active.
Few situations reach that level, but the reality is there’s little to stop someone from posting whatever they want on many of these sites, no matter how offensive or threatening. Once it’s been posted, however, athletic directors can take efforts to have it removed. Some sites have a link to an area where you can report inappropriate posts, while others will require a phone call to the site’s operators. Many sites also have monitors who are on the look-out for inappropriate posts.
“I think what came out of the Massachusetts case is a heightened awareness of the need for responsible posting on the Internet and the need for people to be vigilant and report inappropriate posts,” Johnson says, “as well as the need for these sites to do the best job they can of trying to pull this stuff. And this is something these sites have gotten a lot better at. Where it might have taken a day for a site to yank things off a year ago, now it sometimes happens the same part of the day. We know this is true because we have worked closely with MichiganLive and, even through our disagreements, we’re still working toward a common goal, which is for these forums to be used responsibly.”
Another area of concern is personal attacks on coaches and administrators. Coaches realize that being in the public eye means they are open to criticism, and they accept that some will come their way. But when criticism clearly crosses the line of civility, many coaches and administrators are tempted to fight back.
However, Johnson says coaches and administrators should avoid joining the fray and instead notify the host of the inappropriate post. “If an attack becomes vicious or baseless, I think you’ll find that a number of sites would be quick to pull those posts,” Johnson says. “It would not be inappropriate for an administrator to contact the company that is hosting the bulletin board, identify themselves, and let them know this information is not correct.”
Unfortunately, it’s all but impossible for a coach or athletic director to keep up with all the sites where inappropriate posts could pop up. Although it might be helpful to have someone take a look through any popular sites you hear of, tracking all these sites could turn into a full-time job all its own.
Thus, the focus shifts to the student-athletes who might visit these sites. One solution might be to ban these sites from school computers. But many of these bulletin boards and chat rooms are part of larger sites that would be difficult to eliminate from school use, such as sites operated by the local newspaper.
“It may be that the news and information on the site do contribute to the learning process,” Johnson says. “You don’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction and block a whole site if you can just block certain pages.”
Even if you limit access to these sites from schools, there’s no controlling what students do from home. The real solution is to insist student-athletes behave in the cyberworld the same way they behave in the real world.
“It’s very difficult to monitor all of your people on the Internet just as it’s very difficult to monitor them when they’re out in the community,” Johnson says. “Common sense has to prevail. There has to be some communication from the school to the student-athletes and to the community to say ‘Here’s what’s right and here’s what’s wrong,’ and this is just another area where people have to behave. I think student-athletes need to realize they represent the school no matter where they are.”
It may also help to remind your student-athletes that there are technologies out there to help track down anonymous posters. So even if they think they are anonymous, someone may be able to track them down and hold them accountable for their posts.
But just as administrators cannot control all their students, neither can they control the Web sites. Although many providers are responsible organizations, today’s technology allows almost anyone to host a site, and the smaller rogue sites hold more potential for bigger trouble—even though their audiences may be smaller.
“The big operators will be more responsible, but kids can set up bulletin boards and these things can run wild from what’s basically a garage-door site,” Johnson says. “These personal-space publishers are going to be like mosquitoes: They’re going to be a nuisance and they’re going to be difficult to get rid of because that kind of regulation just does not exist yet on the Internet.”


Definitions

Bulletin Board: a site where users can post messages for any other users to read when they log on to the site. Messages are often archived for access long after the message was written. Posts can often be removed or edited by the Web site operator. Access policies vary greatly. Some sites are password protected to allow access only by members. Others require a real name and valid e-mail address to post. Many allow anyone to post messages without requiring any identifying information. Bulletin boards can be found on almost any kind of site, from major national Web sites such as ESPN.com and CNNSI.com to small, locally oriented sites with little, if any, outside backing.

Chat Room: an area of a Web site where users can interact in real-time conversation. Messages are displayed on a scrolling screen for those who are logged on to the chat room. Messages usually cannot be read later by those who were not in the room, although a log of the conversations may be kept by the operator. Chat rooms require a larger overall audience, since only a small portion of users will usually be online at one time. Thus, chat rooms are often found on large multi-purpose sites such as Yahoo; media Web sites, including those offered by many newspapers; and service providers, including services such as America OnLine (AOL).


Positive Postings
Despite some of the incidents of improper messages on various bulletin boards, this technology has much to offer athletic administrators when used properly. Many professional organizations, including several coaches’ associations, operate bulletin boards for their members. These boards provide a way for people to share information on common problems and exchange ideas. Users will often post a question about a problem they’re facing and receive helpful responses from those who have faced a similar problem.
Some of these systems are password protected, so only members of the organization can access the board. Others let people read messages as a guest, while allowing only members to post messages.
“If you have the right environment, set it up for members only, and promote identification and accountability, the only people who will go out and share information are those who have good information to share,” Johnson says. “It doesn’t degenerate into the kind of thing where barbs are thrown back and forth.
“The NFHS is starting to do this with its Web site, which will allow some interaction between the state associations so we can address some common issues we face,” Johnson continues. “When you do things like that, you are serving the common good and using the media for the purpose for which it was intended. And hopefully, in time, that’s the way this whole thing will turn—toward reasonable use.”


What’s Your Address?
From 10-year-olds showing off their Pokemon collections to the largest multi-national corporation, it seems everyone has a Web site these days. And if you don’t already have a cyberspace home for your teams, there are plenty of people out there ready and waiting to build one for you.
Fortunately, staking a claim in cyberspace is much easier than building a house, not to mention cheaper. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that those offering to help build your Internet home are not doing so out of the generosity of their hearts. Getting you on the Web is their business, so it’s up to you to make sure that it’s good for your program and not just the Web company.
Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of all the different ways for your program to get on the Web. Most of the early sites were created by interested staff members and students and were usually hosted by the school’s system. Now, there are companies who will, for free, help you set up your Web site and host it on their machines. This means you only have to find someone to maintain the content of the site while the company worries about the technical side of the equation.
Before you look at what these companies have to offer, you should take the time to think about what you want to get out of a Web site. The most obvious benefit is in public relations—getting attention for your teams and athletes without having to go through the local media.
But according to Mac Cumbo, Assistant Athletic Director and Head Football Coach at North Henderson High School in Hendersonville, N.C., athletic directors who limit themselves to this benefit are missing a large part of the picture. “Sure you can get some PR out of a site, but eventually you have to move beyond that—a Web site can also be a major form of communication on a daily basis,” says Cumbo, who is also the Technology Director and Webmaster for the North Carolina Athletic Directors Association. “It can be one site to reach everyone. You can put a schedule there, or directions to the school, which will cut down on phone calls.”
Once you’ve decided what you want to get out of your Web site, it’s time to decide how to get it. Among the most important things to ask any provider, whether in-house or outside, are the nuts-and-bolts questions: How will we use the service? How do we set up the site? How will the site be maintained? What kind of programs are needed? How much training will it take?
Most Web sites require regular updating to keep the information current, so you’ll also have to think about who will do that. Will it be a staff member or maybe a student? Do they have access to a computer at school or home? What do they need to update the site? How much time will it take?
After all, the quality of your Web site will largely be determined by the information that’s on it. Outside services can give you a head start by providing a format for your page, simplifying the process, and serving as a resource, but it’s usually someone at your school who has to make it your own.
If you’re looking at outside providers, another thing to consider is what your colleagues at other schools are using. One of the great benefits of the World Wide Web is the way it allows sites to connect to other sites, which will be much easier if everyone is using the same system. For example, instead of creating maps to each of your opponents’ fields on your site, you can simply link to the maps on their sites. This process is much easier when everyone is part of the same system.
“If we’re going to network together, we should all be in one vehicle,” Cumbo says. “It’s the old KISS principle—Keep It Simple, Stupid.”
In addition, outside providers are usually a network of high school-related sites and offer the ability to easily link to stories and articles of interest to people visiting your site. This can be anything from the latest state football rankings to a story about a record-setting performance.
Another important question is what your Web address will be—the simpler, the better. The more dots and slashes, the harder it is to remember.
Ironically, athletic directors who ignore new technology may find themselves with even more work to do in the long run than those who embrace it. Countless Web sites are clamoring for high school sports information. From national outfits like Fox Sports to smaller regional outfits like Western Tennessee Sports Online, more people want your scores and information than ever before. For athletic directors who aren’t online, this means more phone calls when a game is over. However, with a little bit of Internet skills, you can eliminate this problem. For example, after every game, you can send a group e-mail to all those new media outlets. Or you can post your updated statistics on your Web site for them to get when they need it.
As the technology matures, it’s likely that the herd will be thinned and most areas will be served by a handful of Web sites. And as more and more schools go on the Web, exchanging information should become easier for fans, coaches, athletes, and administrators.


Ticket Barkers
One of the most frustrating sights in athletics can be an empty seat at a sold-out game. While the school may get its money for the ticket, few others are happy. The fan paid for something he or she didn’t use, some other fan couldn’t get a seat, and the vendors will sell a couple fewer hot dogs and park fewer cars.
Thanks to the World Wide Web, these unused seats no longer have to go empty. There are many Web sites that offer to put together ticket holders who can’t use their tickets with people who want to buy tickets to otherwise sold-out events.
Texas A&M University, for example, is working with E-TicketBoard www.e-ticketboard.com to help sellers and buyers of tickets for its games get together online. People with tickets they can’t use post the relevant information, including location, number of tickets, and cost. People wanting tickets can either select one of the listed selling posts or enter their desired location, number of tickets, and cost. When a match is made, e-mail is sent to both parties, who are then responsible for the final transaction. Although E-TicketBoard normally charges a fee for its service, it has reached an agreement with Texas A&M where users registering from the school’s athletic Web site can use the service for Aggie games at no charge.
“We are very excited to be able to offer our fans such an outstanding service on our Web site at no charge,” said Texas A&M Athletic Director Wally Groff. “Not only do we foresee this exchange increasing the attendance at our home games, but this venture will also accomplish the goal of curtailing ticket scalping outside our venues.”
While Texas A&M’s system requires buyers and sellers to make their transactions on their own, other organizations are willing to act as the middle man. The San Francisco Giants have a site where season ticket holders can list tickets they won’t be using. Other people can purchase those tickets through the Giants’ ticket office with the seat holder receiving a credit to their account with the Giants. The credit can then be taken as cash at the end of the season or applied toward tickets for the following season.
In this system, the season ticket holder does not yield his or her tickets. Since the Giants use an electronic turnstile, the bar code for the season ticket will be voided. A new ticket with a valid barcode will be mailed to the new buyer or picked up at the park. A 10 percent processing fee is added to cover the cost of the system.


Juggling E-Mail Issues
Did you know that most e-mail messages are about as secure as those written on post cards? Or that your employers could probably go through your e-mail messages anytime they desired?
E-mail has become a part of everyday life for most athletic directors, but its ease of use leads many people to overlook some of its possible pitfalls. Privacy, security, and appropriate use are all areas of concern for those who use or manage e-mail systems, and the law has been slow to address these areas.
In some cases, employees have been fired for misusing their e-mail accounts, and even Microsoft was tripped up during its anti-trust case by old e-mails that were obtained by the Justice Department. And just as the 2000 football season opened, three high school coaches in suburban Seattle were suspended from their teaching and coaching jobs for as long as three weeks for using school computers to view and forward e-mail with sexually explicit photographs.
Athletic directors certainly do not need to know how their e-mail system works, anymore than they need to know how the engines in the school buses work. But they do need to know about the policies and procedures that govern its use.
Fortunately, most schools that have an e-mail system also have an e-mail policy in place. If this is the case at your school, you should learn the policy, follow it, and preach it to your staff. And if there is no e-mail policy in place, you might want to consider developing one for your department.
The first area of concern is privacy. In most cases, employers have the right to monitor their e-mail systems. But before you start looking through an assistant coach’s e-mail box to see if he’s been passing plays to the opposition, remember that most e-mail policies spell out how much privacy employees can expect and detail procedures for accessing other people’s e-mail. In addition, any action of this type could have a serious effect on department morale and create unintended tensions.
When it comes to the privacy of your own e-mail, the safest approach is to assume that anyone else can read it. In fact, for those employed by public institutions, your e-mail may be covered under public records laws.
Even if you are assured complete privacy through an e-mail policy, the reality is that such a policy ends the minute you hit the “send” button. An e-mail message can be forwarded by its recipients with a few keystrokes, extending its audience far beyond what was first intended. And it’s much easier to misaddress an e-mail message than an envelope—more than one errant message has ended up in the wrong hands because of a misplaced mouse click.
Along with privacy concerns, security can be an issue. Anyone with sufficient computing skills and ill intent can intercept almost any e-mail message as it passes through numerous servers en route to its destination. Some people encrypt sensitive messages, but encryption programs can be cumbersome to use, take time to learn, and may not be allowed on some systems.
Another security issue involves the permanence of e-mail messages. Although it may seem that something written on paper will be around longer than a collection of bits and bytes, the truth is, when you delete an e-mail, it is only removed from your own computer. It can, and probably will, live forever. Most e-mail systems are backed up on a regular basis in case of a problem with the system, and these backups are often retained for long periods of time. So even if you delete a message from your e-mail box, there’s probably a copy of it somewhere else.
The bottom line: for sensitive messages, e-mail is probably not the best choice.
You may also want to think about appropriate-use issues around this new form of letter writing. Most e-mail policies limit use to work-related activity. Most also prohibit offensive or illegal material. While the work-related provision may not be vigorously enforced, be especially careful about forwarding jokes and other non-business e-mail. That joke you laughed so hard at on the tee with your friendly foursome won’t seem as funny when it’s in black-and-white as part of a legal brief. Rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t print it and post it on a company bulletin board, don’t send it to anyone.
Keep in mind that the informality and immediacy of e-mail can make one forget proper communication skills. For example, it can be awfully tempting to quickly reply in-kind to a nasty message, but most of the time, it’s better to reply only after you’ve calmed down and collected your thoughts.
Another reality of e-mail is that, unlike phone or face-to-face communication, words alone have to carry the message. There’s no laugh there to indicate you’re joking or sympathetic look to soften the blow of bad news. Choose your words wisely, and if you want to indicate the mood of your message, there are some generally accepted symbols called emoticons that can help, although some people view them as frivolous. For example, G or :) can mean a grin indicating you’re kidding, while :( indicates you’re sad. For most messages, though, the safest route is to make sure you say exactly what you mean and leave no room for misinterpretation.
As e-mail use has exploded, so has the contents of most people’s in-box. To make sure your message is noticed, pick your subject line carefully. Mass e-mailers have done this with their advertisements, so subject lines like “Read This Now” or “Important!” might be ignored. Instead make sure it’s clear what your message is about and why the reader should care. “North-South game time changed” will work better than “New time.” This is doubly important if your e-mail address is made up of something other than your name, since some people are wary of e-mail from addresses they don’t recognize.


Organizing Officals Online
It almost sounds too good to be true—an on-line source for all the information you need regarding officials—from game assignments to mileage fees—all in one place. For the member schools of the Eastern College Athletic Conference, this dream has become a reality.
With the system, which went live in September and is still being expanded, athletic directors are able to stay up-to-date on who will be working their games, and the conference is better able to assign officials and save money—a lot of money—on postage.
“When I took over here [two years ago], we were spending about $50,000 a year on postage, the bulk of it on Final Game Notices [which provided the final officials assignments and game information],” says Phil Buttafuoco, Commissioner of the ECAC, which counts 308 schools among its members. “We were mailing thousands and thousands of these out weekly, if not daily. And when an assignment would change late, the letters would get to the schools after the game had been played—the school didn’t even know who the officials were and thus had troubles paying them.”
Now, athletic directors can simply go to the Web page the day of or the day before a game to get all the information needed to cut the checks for the officials. Once the site is fully operational, it will even include the proper mileage fees to be paid based on the distance from the official’s home to the school. And any time an assignment is changed, e-mail is sent to any affected parties notifying them that a change has been made and they should consult the Web site for details.
“The athletic directors have loved it because they can see the information on a daily basis and see if we have the correct day, time, opponent, and site,” Buttafuoco says. “If they call to make a change, they can see if it’s been entered into the system correctly. They’re comfortable that the number of officials assigned to the game is correct—say in soccer where some schools use two officials and some use three.”
There are still six schools in the conference without regular e-mail access and they will receive printed game notices as in the past. A handful of officials in each sport also do not have e-mail access, but those who do have quickly been won over by the system.
“Some of the officials were concerned until they realized they could receive their assignments right away,” Buttafuoco says. “We also have directions to the schools on the Web site and we have emergency numbers so if they need to they can call the schools directly.”
The system will also provide an on-line rating system. In the new system, coaches will be able to enter their ratings of officials on-line, which should improve return rates. Using the old mail-in card system, the return rate was typically about 12 percent. During a trial of an on-line rating system with its ice hockey coaches, the league saw the response increase to 67 percent.
“Right away, we saw a tremendous improvement in the information we had in our hands for making assignments,” Buttafuoco says. “We could tell very early on if there were personality issues between coaches and officials. Or, if officials were consistently getting bad ratings, we could act on that right away. With the cards, a coach might wait a month and send them all in at the same time.”
The current system is actually the conference’s second. It originally went online with limited officials assignments in 1999 before quickly deciding to tap the full power of moving its operations to the Web.
“We learned a lot that first year,” Buttafuoco says. “We learned the kind of reports we wanted, such as exactly how many games every official is assigned, which is something we couldn’t get before. We learned how to make it easier for the coordinators to use, as well as the schools and the officials.”
The league hired a Web programming company to redo the original site from scratch. Although the job was initially projected to take eight months, the company had the bulk of the system in place in four months, just in time for the fall season.
“We’re proud of the new system and what it’s going to do,” Buttafuoco says. “This system is wonderful and we’ll pay for the production of the system in the postage savings this year alone, and then we’ll have all that saved money next year. It’s a one-year return on our investment, which is tremendous.”