Social media and sports a growing dilemma
Steelers back Rashard Mendenhall might be the most infamous athlete on Twitter with his recent tweets after the death of Osama bin Laden, but it is an issue that all athletic teams -- college and pro -- are trying to handle.
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When it comes to pro sports teams, most organizations simply frown and bear it after one of their players causes a stir on Twitter or Facebook.
When it comes to college athletes, some universities have more stringent policies in place, including in-season social network bans for a growing number of teams.
Most professional sports leagues only ban tweeting while games are being played and for a period of time before and after games. They do not ban social media altogether, mostly because Twitter and Facebook postings are protected by the First Amendment.
Plenty of pro athletes, including Rashard Mendenhall of the Steelers and Tony Sanchez of the Pirates' Class AA affiliate in Altoona, recently have come under fire for posts on their social media accounts.
Mendenhall clarified his remarks and apologized to those he offended, and Sanchez apologized. In most cases, that is how pro sports teams deal with social networking missteps.
College athletes are under much more scrutiny by coaches and administrators.
Boise State football coach Chris Peterson and New Mexico State football coach DeWayne Walker ban their players from using twitter in-season. So does former Missouri basketball coach Mike Anderson and Mississippi State basketball coach Rick Stansbury.
Duquesne men's basketball coach Ron Everhart initially banned Facebook early in his tenure as Dukes coach, but he has since altered his stance. Everhart's players can use all forms of social media, but there are rules.
"Although I personally subscribe to an 'old-school' line of thinking, I understand social media has emerged as a primary form of communication for many people," Everhart said. "As a team, we strongly discourage the excessive use of Twitter and Facebook, especially in-season, and ask that posts not include team-related information."
While local Division I universities have not had major problems with Twitter and Facebook among their athletes, they have not been free of controversy, however minor they might seem in light of Mendenhall's epic tweets.
Pitt basketball player Ashton Gibbs tweeted the following after a loss to Louisville in February: "No way we shouldve lost to them bums smh [shaking my head]."
Pat Forde of ESPN.com saw the tweet within minutes of it being posted and wrote about it prominently in his game story. Gibbs removed the tweet from his account and apologized the next day.
In December, senior offensive lineman Jason Pinkston criticized Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson after football coach Dave Wannstedt was let go. "These people don't know they made the biggest mistake ever letting OUR coach go," Pinkston wrote. "You've done so much for me and my family. I would never of had this chance if it weren't for you. I know my mother greatly appreciates what you have done for us. He didn't deserve this from a guy who only came and switched us from ADIDAS to NIKE. Thank you, God bless, hail to Pitt and coach 'Wann' and his family."
Unlike pro sports leagues, the NCAA has no official policy for social media for student-athletes. The NCAA leaves it up to its member institutions on how they wish to deal with Twitter and Facebook problems.
Pitt does not have a social media policy, and Pederson is against NCAA legislation to deal with it. Pitt's approach under Pederson has been to educate the athletes and trust them to make good decisions.
"If you look back at those situations, they're both learning experiences," Pederson said of the tweets from Gibbs and Pinkston. "It kind of reminds you that you have to be responsible for what you say and do. That's the danger in this instant response age.
"In regards to Ashton, he had a chance to think about it, and it obviously isn't something he wanted out there. We're trying to educate them that these things have a wider reach than you think they do. You have to be careful because everyone can see what you're writing."
Banning social media has not been on Pitt's radar.
"We don't want to dictate to them what they can do on a daily basis," Pederson said. "These are smart, young people we are dealing with. We just try to educate them on making good decisions, how to make good judgments."
Robert Morris University does not have any social media policies, either, but Colonials men's basketball coach Andy Toole personally follows every one of his players on Twitter.
Toole is 30 and part of a generation that has driven the popularity of social media, so he takes it upon himself to know what his players are saying.
"They don't love the fact that I follow them on Twitter," Toole admitted. "I guess it's not cool if your coach follows you. But, if you want to play for Robert Morris, I'm going to follow you. I want to know what they're doing and what they're saying. There have been a couple of times where I've gone to players and told them to watch what they're saying. I don't want them to lose out on the college experience, but, at the same time, they're student-athletes so they have to be careful of what they do."
Toole said he would not have a problem banning Twitter if his players demonstrated bad judgment.
"If you act responsibly and act in accordance with the expectations that we have for you, then we won't have any problems," Toole said. "But, if anything inappropriate is on there, that privilege will be taken away."
Like Robert Morris, West Virginia University has a monitoring system for its athletes, but there is no department-wide policy regarding Twitter or Facebook. The West Virginia athletic department leaves it up to each coaching staff for the university's 17 varsity sports to construct social media policies for its team.
In most cases, a coach has to be allowed by the student-athlete to be a friend on Facebook or a follower on Twitter, so that the monitoring process takes place. The compliance office, senior women's administrator and sports information office also have served as monitors.
If coaches and athletic departments tire of monitoring their athletes, there is a company that offers to track social media posts of college athletes.
Kevin Long, the CEO of MVP Sports Media Training and U Diligence, developed a software program that monitors tweets and Facebook postings for some two dozen Division I schools, the majority of which are in the six major conferences.
The company provides the computer software that includes 500 key search words from a broad range of subjects including sex, drugs, alcohol, violence and race. The school can input other key words. For example, if Pitt wanted to stop its football players from talking trash via Twitter and Facebook on Backyard Brawl week, an assistant coach or athletic department employee could input the names of West Virginia's coaches and players to prevent that from happening.
When one of the key search words is written on a Twitter account or Facebook page, an alert email is distributed to the school and the player. The school then takes action from there.
There is no infringement of privacy or First Amendment rights because the student-athletes must install an application that allows the tracking.
"In the end, the students are choosing to put the applications on their social network pages," Long said. "The universities are the ones requiring the students to do that."
The service has been offered for about three years. The cost is $1,500 per year for one team or $5,000 per year for the tracking of more than 500 student-athletes. Long said most clients purchase the package that tracks all the university's athletes.
"The feedback has been tremendous," he said. "All of our clients are multiyear clients."
Long got the idea when he was traveling to college and professional sports towns for business with his MVP Sports Media Training company. He started noticing some stories in newspapers about photos on Facebook or posts on Twitter.
"When I go and speak to athletes I like to call it preventing a Google-able moment," Long said. "Having a Google-able moment is not something you want to have. When people Google Rashard Mendenhall now, the first thing that is going to come up is the Twitter controversy. We want to reduce that risks for student athletes. We have the best defense for making athletes Google-able for all the right reasons."
Long also has one other piece of advice for athletes before they press the send button.
"I have the mother rule," he said. "If it's not something that would be OK with your mother if someone sent her a link to what you wrote, then there is probably a better way of saying or not saying it at all.
"All of the controversies you see, they boil down to bad judgment. A lot of the athletes we work with are starting to understand that it can impact on them getting a job after college.
"Employers are starting to search social media networks of people before they even interview them. What we're trying to do is protect athletes' reputations."
Ben Howard/ Post-Gazette illustration
First Published May 16, 2011 12:00 am