The Northwestern women’s soccer players had no idea what a stir a few pictures could cause.
They should have.
Teens, tweens and college students are using the Internet as their primary means of communication these days, posting personal information, photos and random thoughts to share with friends. But it’s not only friends and acquaintances getting the all-access pass, and some athletes are finding themselves overexposed.
“People are under the assumption that whatever they post is on some top-secret Web site that nobody can get to. It’s not,” said John Planek, athletic director at Chicago’s Loyola University. “The whole world can see it. That’s why there are three letters at the beginning of it: the World Wide Web.”
Schools are scrambling to adjust. Last December, Planek told Loyola’s athletes to get off Facebook.com, a social-networking site primarily for high school and college students, or risk losing their scholarships. The Ramblers also are strongly discouraged from posting on similar sites such as MySpace.com or Webshots.com.
Earlier this week, a high school district in suburban Chicago approved disciplinary action against athletes and students in other extracurriculars for inappropriate or illegal activity on blogs and Web sites. Universities throughout the country are reminding students to think before they post.
“One of the suggestions I make to athletic departments is to inform your athletes that when you’re using Facebook or other social networks, or even blogs, they’re subject to public scrutiny,” said Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State and author of “Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age.”
“You might as well be talking to a reporter if you’re a student who participates in the public arena,” Bugeja added. “Think ahead of time about the possible consequences of your actions. If you’re able to live with the consequences, then you do it. If you’re not able to live with the consequences, then you don’t.”
Never was that more clear than with last week’s rash of photos showing athletes behaving badly. On May 15, the badjocks.com Web site published photos of the Northwestern women’s soccer team in an alleged hazing. Players were dressed in T-shirts and underwear in several of the pictures, while team members were blindfolded and had their hands tied behind their backs in others.
Two days later, badjocks.com posted photos of alleged hazing by club or varsity athletes at 11 other schools, including Princeton, Michigan, Wake Forest and UC-Santa Barbara. Iowa is investigating its baseball team for possible inappropriate behavior after photos of college-age men standing naked with hats over their genitals were found on another Web site.
Hazing is forbidden at most schools, and Northwestern suspended the soccer team pending an investigation. In an apology released earlier this week, the players said they were surprised and embarrassed at the attention they’ve drawn.
“We never foresaw that what began as a well-intentioned night of team unity and celebration would have such severe consequences,” the players wrote in the letter, published Monday in the school’s student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, “and we are embarrassed that our actions have become the source of such harsh criticism.”
College and high school students today have had access to computers since they were toddlers, and using the Internet, cell phones and PDAs is second nature. They get their homework assignments, lectures and music off the Internet. They’re as likely to use their cell phone to send a text message as to make a call.
So it’s no surprise that sites such as Facebook and MySpace, which allow them to create personal Web pages and connect with friends near and far, are so popular. MySpace, which has a user base of nearly 80 million, ranks in the top 10 among U.S. Web sites for both page views (second) and unique visitors to the site (eighth), according to comScore Media Metrix. Facebook, which requires users to have an e-mail from a registered high school, college or company, said it has 7.7 million users, two-thirds of whom visit the site daily.
But technical savvy doesn’t guarantee privacy.
“We have unleashed this technological capability on society and it’s helping us in amazing ways. But there’s also a downside to it,” said Sam McQuade, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who specializes in cybercrime and technology issues.
“The biggest concern I have is that students are naive about ways in which that data can be harvested and used against them in the short, medium and long term, for a variety of malicious ways.”
That applies to all students. But since athletes are the closest thing to celebrities at a college or high school, their risk of getting caught in the Web’s glare is that much greater.
Look at the photos that surfaced last week. Fraternities and sororities have gotten busted for hazing before, but those stories didn’t have the same impact as the pictures on badjocks.com.
“If there’s bad behavior going on, it doesn’t make it OK if somebody’s not an athlete,” said Bob Reno, creator of badjocks.com. “But there’s obviously more scrutiny as (athletic) programs make more money.”
Added Iowa State’s Bugeja, “Student-athletes are high-profile students. And because they’re high-profile, what happens to student-athletes inherently becomes more newsworthy.”
Notoriety was one thing Planek was hoping to avoid when he banned Loyola’s athletes from Facebook. But he had other concerns, as well. Identify theft and personal safety. His athletes’ grades.
“We’ve worked all year to alert students to be more thoughtful instead of naively posting something on the Web about themselves,” said Yonie Harris, the dean of students at UC-Santa Barbara. “What’s acceptable in the student culture today might not be acceptable 20 years from now when that student is going for a serious job.
“It’s a developmental issue,” she added. “People of this age live very much in the present. They don’t see harm very easily in a lot of things. I think that’s why they take physical risks sometimes, and maybe they don’t see the risks of technology.”
While some grumble that attempts to crack down on posting is an invasion of privacy or a violation of First Amendment rights, educators say they’re well within their rights. Nobody is telling student-athletes they can’t post, said Prentiss Lea, the associate superintendent at Community High School District 128 in suburban Chicago, which voted this week to make inappropriate posts subject to disciplinary action.
They just want kids to be smarter about it.
“Teenagers would inherently look at it and say, “This is me and a couple of my friends talking back and forth, and it’s really nobody’s business,”‘ Lea said. “The courts have ruled consistently that because (extracurricular activities) are an extension of the school day, it is a privilege, not a right. So schools can create expectations of behavior.”
Planek said athletes already are held to a higher standard. They face rules and restrictions for grades, eligibility, gambling, and drug and alcohol use that regular students don’t.
“As I told it to our student-athletes, parents entrust the well-being of their student-athletes with the university and with the athletic department,” Planek said. “I look at it as protecting and maintaining the well-being of the student-athletes, and making sure they’re in a safe environment.”