Facing Facebook

By Staff

Coaching Management, 15.1, January 2007, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1501/bbfacingfacebook.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-meet celebration, and photos of underage athletes 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 almost 10 million members, with more students joining every day. It is currently one of the most visited Web sites in the country.

As Facebook has grown in popularity, coaches and athletic administrators have taken notice of its potential hazards. Dave Harris, Head Coach of Track and Field and Cross Country at Emporia State University, says he was “shocked” when he first found out what was on some of his athletes’ Facebook pages.

“I found some of the content degrading to both the student-athlete and our program,” he says. “I also thought there was way too much private information out there. Our athletes didn’t realize how much information could be learned about them from their Facebook page. There’s a great deal of concern about our athletes posting information that could allow individuals, whether they’re in our school or not, to intrude on the athletes’ lives. Anyone can learn where they live, who their friends are, and what music they like, and still be a complete stranger.”

In response, Harris met with his team and explained that these pages are open to viewing by far more than their fellow students. “I asked them to genuinely consider cleaning up their pages so if they are viewed by our athletic director or school president, or even a professor who’s going to write a recommendation for them some day, they would see a very mature individual,” he says. “I also stressed that we are constantly raising money for our programs and there are some highly visible track and field boosters who come to meets and get to know them as individuals. I asked how they would like one of these boosters looking at their Facebook page. I think that hit home for a lot of them.”

Although some schools have banned athletes from using Facebook or similar sites, Harris didn’t take that step. “I told them I don’t want to be a policeman, and I don’t intend to look at everyone’s pages to see what’s there,” he says. “I’ve always had a simple rule on my teams: Don’t embarrass yourself, your team, your family, or your school. I have a lot of trust in my athletes, and I asked them to honor that rule on their pages.”

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 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 can be a great way to learn about the culture at your school.”