College coaches have long preached a litany of warnings to their athletes: Avoid junk food, alcohol, tobacco, cheating, stealing, poor sportsmanship and offensive behavior.
The newest addition to their list is proving to be the most difficult: Avoid photographic documentation of any such behavior.
That’s a lesson six Hamline University football players recently learned the hard way. A cheerleader posted pictures of the tribal Halloween costumes they wore at an off-campus party on the social networking site Facebook, adding the label “spooks and ooks.” It swiftly prompted complaints that led to their suspension from the football team.
A panel is investigating their actions to determine if the six athletes and two other students broke any school policies. Their findings could result in a wide range of penalties, ranging from a warning to expulsion, said Hamline spokeswoman JacQueline Getty.
Across the Twin Cities, college coaches are seizing the case as a teachable moment and an important reminder about the serious consequences that can result from cavalier use of Facebook and other networking sites.
“Students think it’s just childhood fun, and it isn’t,” said Ruth Sinn, head coach of the women’s basketball team at the University of St. Thomas.
She has stressed that point for a couple of years now, but the Hamline incident helped it gain traction in her players’ minds. “Under the circumstance, we reviewed exactly why it’s important [to be cautious on social networks]. They were like, ‘OK, I guess you’re right, Coach.’ “
Garnet Asmundson, head coach of Hamline’s women’s hockey team, addressed the incident at a recent practice, sparking a lively debate. “I’m glad that we never had digital cameras or Facebook when I was in college,” he said later.
“It’s tougher to be an athlete today,” agreed Steve Fritz, St. Thomas’ athletic director. “With phone cameras and these kinds of sites, students have to be extremely careful.”
Nelson Whitmore, coach of Hamline’s men’s basketball team, warned his athletes, “Everyone’s got an eye on you in some way, especially being an athlete. One little mistake can be misconstrued, and you get a mountain out of a molehill.”
No pictures, please
Of course, it doesn’t just depend on the discretion of an athlete, but on everyone else snapping pictures at the party. That’s why Hamline football player Ryan Rasmussen dodges the camera at parties. “I see a camera and I’m like, ‘Peace,’ ” he said, holding his fingers in the peace symbol, turning his shoulder and gesturing to walk away.
Hamline’s football coach has urged his athletes to be cautious about Facebook for some time now, added Rasmussen, who is a senior. “We’ve been told, ‘Don’t put pictures on there.’ “
But that’s not always enough, Sinn said. “That’s the scary thing: Students don’t have private lives anymore. There’s that old saying, ‘When you try to make a decision, be the person you would be if somebody was watching.’ And in today’s society, somebody’s always watching.”
Students ought to know that by now, insists Hamline junior Natalie Self, who said the Halloween pictures offended her. “We live in a society where everything goes on Facebook.”
To help drive that fact home, some athletic departments have written social-networking policies. The College of St. Benedict unveiled its “Internet Guidelines” for student athletes a year ago. It includes instructions that would have served the Hamline football players and cheerleaders well, such as “Always monitor your account photo gallery” and “Monitor your account postings so (as) not to include derogatory or obscene statements.”
St. Thomas’ athletic director, Fritz, crafted a similar policy this fall, instructing coaches to share it with their athletes at the advent of each season. “You cannot simply go in and remove a picture or something you may have written and posted,” it states. “If others have hit on your site, your information can be networked anywhere. This could come back to haunt you …”
More drastic measures
A small but growing number of college athletic departments have taken more drastic measures, banning athletes’ use of social networking sites altogether.
DePaul University in Chicago joined that group last year. “We decided to do it that way instead of saying, ‘This is OK, but this isn’t,’ ” said Kathryn Statz, associate athletic director. “We just didn’t want to get into the business of evaluation, ‘Is this one less nasty than that one?’ “
DePaul makes this rule known in its recruiting letters and communications with prospective athletes. And when the rubber meets the cyber road, the athletic department upholds its policy: Two student athletes have experienced scholarship reductions because of multiple violations.
Though some student athletes gripe, Statz said another group has expressed relief: their parents. After articulating the Facebook ban at a Tuesday meeting for prospective track athletes, the parents in the audience stood up and applauded.
Like DePaul, athletic officials at the University of Minnesota Duluth prohibited student athletes from using social networks last year. However, they lifted the ban this year, replacing it with guidelines that prohibit the posting of “inflammatory” or “degrading” comments online, among other things.
“We readdressed the issue and felt that [providing usage guidelines] would be a better way to proceed and educate them about the problems that are associated with this type of network,” Compliance Coordinator Bill Haller wrote in an email.
One thing is clear: Athletic officials and students will continue to wrestle with the concept of fair play on Facebook.
“It’s difficult because it’s such instant media, with one-sided text. It can cause a lot of misunderstanding,” said Natalie Self, a Hamline junior, standing beside a tearful friend after an emotional student forum about the Facebook incident.
Self said she considers the website the source of tremendous pain and, now, some much-needed education. “Facebook is the best and the worst thing that’s ever happened to us.”
Christina Capecchi, who recently earned a master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is a former reporter at the Catholic Spirit in St. Paul. She will write about culture and the social impact of technology. She can be reached at ccapecchi [at] minnpost [dot] com.