Facing Facebook

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.11, November 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1411/bbfacebook.htm

Two members of your team throw a party and post directions to their off-campus apartment on the Internet. Your team meets at a bar for a post-game celebration, and photos of underage players drinking wind up online. As your team prepares for a road trip, an athlete posts the travel itinerary on the Web, complete with information about hotels where the team will be staying.

If you think these scenarios present a safety and public-relations nightmare waiting to happen, you’re right. If you think they’re not happening already, you’re wrong.

In most cases, the medium is Facebook.com, a Web site your student-athletes probably know well. The site was created to allow college students to network with each other, and it now has over six million members, with more students joining every day. Each member maintains a profile where they can post information about themselves and their personal interests, as well as photos and contact information. Students say it’s a fun and easy way to meet new friends and keep in touch with old ones. It is currently one of the most visited Web sites in the country.

But as Facebook has grown wildly popular, coaches and athletic administrators are starting to take notice of its potential hazards. Mark McGushin, Life Skills Coordinator at Sacramento State University, had never heard of the site before another administrator brought it to his attention. “When I first checked it out, I saw pictures of our student-athletes partying and drinking, and I was especially concerned to see athletes’ cell phone numbers posted, and other types of personal information that could be used to stalk or harass them,” he recalls. “And it wasn’t just one or two athletes who had profiles. At minimum, half of our student-athletes are on the site.”

In response, McGushin has warned all athletes at Sacramento State about the dangers of posting personal information online and has urged them to clean up their profiles. He says virtually everyone has complied, and coaches have since been encouraged to keep an eye on their athletes’ Web presence.

At Loyola University (Ill.), Athletic Director John Planek told athletes last January they are prohibited from having profiles on the site at all, and failing to comply could result in dismissal from their team. “We are responsible for the well-being and safety of our athletes, and most young people don’t realize how something like this can put them at risk,” Planek says. “I’m also concerned that it creates an inroad for people involved in gambling to contact athletes.”

Most schools are taking an educational approach. “First and foremost, we wanted to teach our coaches about what’s out there,” says Pam Overton, Associate Director of Athletics at Florida State University. “We had them come to a meeting and write the name of one athlete on a piece of paper. Then we pulled up each one’s Facebook profile. We all read what they’d written and looked at their photos, and some of the coaches were really shocked by what they saw.”

From there, FSU coaches were told to keep an eye on their athlete’s Facebook use and encourage them to remove anything offensive or unflattering from their profiles. “All we really want is for our athletes to protect their own privacy and make smart decisions,” Overton says. “We basically tell them, ‘If you don’t want to see it as a newspaper headline or on the six o’clock news, don’t put it on Facebook.’”

At least one coach is trying to turn Facebook into a positive influence for his program. Gregg Brandon, Head Football Coach at Bowling Green State University, created his own Facebook profile page and started a Facebook group called the “10,000 students at Bowling Green football games” club. “Social networking sites are out there and I can’t change that, so rather than fight against it, I decided to be proactive and learn more about how I could use it,” he says. “My idea is to use it to generate student support for the program.”

Since Brandon posted his profile, more than 18,000 people—mostly students from Bowling Green along with some faculty and staff members—have requested to become his Internet “friend.” “I have student assistants check the site, and it takes them about half an hour each day,” he says. “If I had more time, I’d love to find other ways to use it. I think it would be a great way to learn about the culture at your school.”