Athletic Departments Skirt Legal Lines in Dealing with FaceBook, MySpace

Sep 1, 2006

As more and more colleges grapple with what to do about student athletes creating home pages on FaceBook and MySpace, certain patterns are emerging as far as policy-making is concerned.
 
In essence, most schools seem to be eschewing the idea banning the activity altogether, opting instead for encouraging a prudent approach.
 
It was eons ago in Internet time when Loyola University AD John Planek instituted a well-publicized ban on the activity. At the time, he told the Chicago Tribune that “We will enforce this rule the same way we enforce all the other policies. If you don’t follow the rules, you aren’t on the team. It is a privilege to participate on our teams, not a right.”
 
While many legal experts believe a school is well within its right to enforce such a ban, school and athletic administrators are taking a more cautious approach.
 
“I don’t think you can step away from this and develop a strong and arbitrary rule,” Terry Don Phillips, the athletic director at Clemson University, told Sports Litigation Alert. “Being at a university is a life experience. It is part of the educational experience at a school to distinguish between what is a good decision and what is a bad one.”
 
That doesn’t mean Phillips, an attorney, gives free reign to his student athletes. Rather they are informed about the impact an otherwise innocuous post can have and that their coach are “randomly” observe their activities on cyberspace.
 
Mike Straubel, the director of the Sports Law Clinic at the Valparaiso University School of Law, is also the head Cross Country coach at Valparaiso University. He, too, has decided not to prohibit MySpace accounts.
 
“I am mindful of respecting their rights as adults to engage in otherwise legal conduct,” he told SLA. “I do, however, ask them to refrain from posting any content that would endanger them, team members, and the team as a whole.”
 
So how do you carefully constrict a path that mitigates that risk of an offensive post.
 
Timothy Liam Epstein of SmithAmundsen in Chicago suggested that ADs use language similar to this:
 
“While the University discourages its athletes from posting to personal websites such as MySpace and Facebook.com due to safety considerations, if a student athlete chooses to have a personal website, such postings must be in compliance with the federal, state, and local laws, the student handbook, NCAA rules, conference rules, the college’s student-athlete code of conduct, and team rules. If such postings are not in compliance with said laws and rules, student athletes risk suspension from the team and University and possible loss of financial aid as would be the case for any other violations of the aforementioned laws and rules.
 
“Further, while not restricted, the University discourages student athletes from posting personal information on the Internet for the athlete’s own safety and privacy.”
 
Here is how a few athletic departments are handling the issue in their new student athlete hand books:
 
The University of Florida
 
The Facebook.com is one of the most widely used forms of communication on the University of Florida campus. Over 35,000 UF students, alumni, faculty and staff have profiles listed on the Facebook, and nearly 20,000 of them log in every day!
 
For those of you who are not familiar with the online service, Facebook.com allows anyone with an email address ending in “.edu” to create a profile online – this means you can post pictures, join groups, become “friends” with others, provide contact information, list your class schedule, and discuss your favorite books, movies, and music. This new technology has connected UF students and stakeholders in unprecedented ways, and the limits in how we can communicate and interact continue to be stretched.
 
While the information UF students post on the Facebook can only be seen by others who have a “ufl.edu” email address (or people from other schools and communities you’ve “friended”), that can include lots of people – alumni, faculty, staff, parents, strangers and even potential future employers. It is recommended that you become sensitive to the information and pictures you post (or others post about you).
 
There are many other services like Facebook.com (i.e., MySpace.com, Blogspot.com, etc.), and the same discretion and care you are now using for Facebook after reading this should be used for any online community or communication network. We have listed a few thoughts to consider:
 
Posting Photographs:
• Avoid posting pictures that might cast you in a negative light. If you would not want the photo on the front page of a local newspaper, you probably shouldn’t have it on Facebook.com.
• Pictures of illegal or irresponsible acts could open you up to criminal or judicial investigations. Others may “tag” a photo to your site that may not present you in the best light. Check your Profile often.
• Photos on Facebook (or anywhere else on the web) can be easily copied and shared with others. Digital photos can have a way of embarrassing you many years into the future.
Privacy:
• You may want all of your friends to have your contact information, but there may be many others who you do not want to know how to reach you. Some information should remain confidential.
• Take the time to explore the privacy settings built into Facebook. There are ways to control the amount of information you release and to whom you release it.
• If you post your class schedule and address, anyone who can log on to Facebook knows where you are during the day and you are more vulnerable to crime.
Impact on Your Future
• “Partying” and “boozing” probably don’t qualify as hobbies or interests. Be careful what you name your “groups” and which ones you join.
• Threatening language directed at an individual is a crime.
• Employer representatives who you meet at the Career Fair might be an alum and will likely look you up on Facebook. Your chances of being hired by a company may be impacted by your Facebook account.
 
General Usage
• Use of derogatory or offensive language may not reflect you at your best. If you wouldn’t speak that way in an interview or in a meeting with a faculty member, don’t put it on the web.
• Be conscious of how much time you spend on internet sites like Facebook and blogs. It is easy to waste a lot of time that could be spent being more productive.
• Use good common sense when publishing anything on the internet or visiting other web sites.
 
The University of Texas at Permian Basin
 
“I want to call attention to an issue that has recently generated intense discussions on college campuses and within athletic departments nationally—the posting of student-athlete profiles and photographs on Facebook.com and other similar websites. In some instances, student-athletes have posted inappropriate photographs and other content that ultimately led to disciplinary action against the student-athletes, including dismissal from the team. Additionally, fans of opposing teams have downloaded information or images posted on Facebook.com about a student-athlete and then used it to taunt or humiliate that individual during a contest. In another case, media have become aware of information posted on these sites resulting in intense scrutiny of student-athlete behavior. With that, I want to bring this issue to your attention and ask that you exercise great care when displaying any personal information in a public forum.” — Dr. Steve Aicinena, Athletic Director
 
Creighton University
 
Social Networking Websites Policy
While the Athletics Department at Creighton University cannot prohibit the use of social networking websites such as MySpace.com and Facebook.com, and/or internet “blog” websites (these are prohibited in the Academic Learning Center, however), it reserves the right to monitor student athlete profiles and materials posted on these sites for the following:
1. Offensive or inappropriate pictures
2. Offensive or inappropriate comments
3. Any information placed on the website(s) that would violate the ethics and intent behind both the student code of conduct AND the student-athlete code of conduct
 
St. Leo College
 
Internet Policy (Facebook/My Space)
The administration may not always agree, but understands the purpose of internet websites such as Facebook/My Space; however the administration has very clear interpretations with internet websites and pictures. Any picture that displays manners that are unbecoming of a Saint Leo University Student-Athlete will not be tolerated. Pictures of you with alcohol, displays of sexual acts or promoting the University or Athletic Department in a negative light will result in disciplinary action. Therefore, do not promote anything that may be viewed as questionable by the administration, media, public or your family.
Clemson Leans On Its Coaches
 
Clemson’s Phillips has decided against bringing an intern in or asking the compliance department to monitor the student athlete’s posts on the Internet, turning that responsibility, instead, over to his coaches.
 
“This will be one of the topics when we have our meeting with the coaches next week,” he said. “We do believe that our coaches have a responsibility to know what is happening with their team. We also expect them to address it with their respective student athletes before it comes to me.”
 
Phillips can’t help feeling uneasy about the whole issue.
 
“We are dipping our toe in a very grey area. As an athletic director, you worry about areas that you don’t have strong control over,” he said. “One offensive post can not only impact the individual, but the team, the department and the university.
 
“One day, this could all blow up on us, and maybe I will wish we did have a rule that prevented them from posting, that we did emphasize that participating in college athletics is a privilege, and not a right.”
 


 

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