Administrators Must Help Recruits Hide From Overzealous Online Fans
Heavily recruited linebacker C.J. Johnson smiled for the camera during the 2011 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, but he blamed Facebook for making the recruiting experience "a living nightmare." (Photo courtesy of John Albright/Icon SMI)
Ruben Gonzalez and Andre Davis, two of the top wide receivers in Hillsborough County, Fla., announced their commitments to the University of South Florida within a week of one another earlier this year. But rather than call a traditional press conference, as high-profile recruits have done in years past, the Tampa-area players opted to write poorly punctuated announcements on their own Facebook pages.
"To whom this may concern, for the next four years of my collegiate career I will be attending USF! Go Bulls!" Gonzalez, a standout at Robinson High School, posted on his wall. Jefferson High's Davis took a similar approach: "I Andre Davis am officially a USF Bull. The feeling is indescribable."
Local media picked up on the posts, and the news spread.
"It's the new way to do things," says Shane Kenny, co-founder of InternetSafety.com, an Acworth, Ga.-based provider of web-filtering solutions for consumers and businesses since 1999, now owned by digital security company McAfee. "That's just the way teenagers are communicating these days."
Gonzalez and Davis are among the new breed of interscholastic student-athletes who achieved star status at the dawn of an enhanced era of online social media — and both of them were able to take advantage of the medium. But things don't always go so smoothly.
When Brent Calloway, a highly touted running back/linebacker from Russellville (Ala.) High School, backed out of his commitment to the University of Alabama and accepted a scholarship offer from rival Auburn University, his Facebook page lit up with unfriendly comments. "I got things saying they hope I break my legs," Calloway told The Times Daily in Florence, Ala. "I've had death threats. They hope I lose my scholarship. A bunch of crazy stuff." (After all that, Calloway ultimately elected to stick with his initial decision and signed with the Crimson Tide.)
And Philadelphia (Miss.) High School linebacker C.J. Johnson, who decommitted from Mississippi State following defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's departure for the University of Texas, announced he was logging off Facebook once he settled on Ole Miss. With false Internet rumors flying that Johnson reneged on Mississippi State because his mother allegedly cleaned the house of an Ole Miss administrator for $100,000 a year, the trash talk on Johnson's Facebook page reached new levels. "This is my last post and I'm gonna leave facebook with this," he wrote. "I will not be a Mississippi state bulldog and I'm not considering Mississippi state anymore bc you have constantly comment on my page send me crazy inboxes and has made my recruiting experience a living nightmare. Goodbye facebook."
Today, nearly half of all Americans use Facebook (compared to only 7 percent who use Twitter), and statistics reveal that as many as 73 percent of all kids between the ages of 12 and 17 participate in some sort of online social networking site, according to the Pew Research Center.
That means most student-athletes on any given high school sports team probably are active on Facebook. As a result, coaches and athletic directors need to help participants survive in a new frontier where privacy simply does not exist.
"It comes down to the same rules we tell everybody," Kenny says. "The number one rule is, be careful what you post. If it's spelled wrong, or it's inappropriate, or you're going to regret it later, don't post it. The second rule is, know your audience. Facebook has pretty good privacy features, if you get in there and set them up correctly. And third, only friend your friends. You don't have to friend everyone who sends you an invite — especially if you don't know who that person is. This is a big one, especially with young athletes, because the number of friends someone has is really like a status symbol. Think about it from a teenager's point of view: They want everyone to know what they're doing."
Kenny is willing to bet that Russellville High's Calloway and Philadelphia High's Johnson did not have their Facebook privacy profiles set to "friends only," meaning that literally anyone in the world could visit those players' Facebook pages and join in the trash talk.
One way for coaches and athletic administrators to better grasp how student-athletes are using Facebook is to actually "friend" players, using a school-only account. (That way, players won't have access to details about coaches' personal lives.) Practice updates, team reminders and other messages could be posted to that account's Facebook wall and sent immediately to players.
Football coach Marc Wilson and his staff at Imhotep Institute Charter High School in Philadelphia "friended" several players last fall in an effort to monitor a "Facebook curfew," which banned the team from posting anything on the site after 11 p.m. the night before a game. "We've seen it happen before where individuals start an exchange on Facebook, and it leads to something that becomes more physical and realistic," Wilson told The Philadelphia Inquirer, adding that he could still monitor the activity of players who weren't his "friends." "They have friended someone, who's a friend of someone we are friends with. So word eventually gets back."
Wilson told Inquirer reporter Pat Gillespie that he had disciplined at least eight players for misusing Facebook — including senior Maurice Howard, who admitted that "when I was doing it, I wasn't really thinking too much about the repercussions."
Sports teams should use their school's Facebook and social-networking policies as a guide for creating team policies, Kenny suggests. Like other codes of conduct, those policies should be read by players and parents, then signed and returned to coaches. And while the punishment for violating such policies must fit the crime, it also should be enforced as rigorously as every other team policy.
Ideally, teaching social-networking protocol is a schoolwide mission. "Every teacher needs to be drilling these Internet safety concepts into students, whether it's on the football field or in a math class," Kenny says.
In fact, with mobile devices already defining the next generation of social media, Facebook and whatever comes after it are only going to become more ubiquitous in the lives of student-athletes, readily at their fingertips all the time. He wouldn't even be surprised if high school players begin hosting their own virtual press conferences, shooting an iPhone video from the field, posting it on YouTube and waiting for it to go viral.
"This is the way things are," Kenny says. "And you're not going to stop it."
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