UMD athletes won’t be ‘poking’ anymore

Officials say athlete profiles on social-networking sites could damage images.

Mitch Anderson

University of Minnesota-Duluth head volleyball coach Jim Boos can have a profile on the popular social-networking Web site Facebook.com. His players, however, cannot.

The players aren’t supposed to, according to a UMD policy enacted last fall. The policy bans student-athletes from using social-networking sites – such as Facebook, MySpace and Flickr – to prevent potentially embarrassing information from leaking onto the Internet.

The policy made reference to athletes posting derogatory comments about other athletes and athletic department personnel on Web sites, as well as pictures of underage drinking and other inappropriate behavior.

UMD Athletics Director Bob Nielson said college athletes are held to a higher degree of scrutiny than regular students, so it’s important to educate student-athletes about how to protect themselves.

“I think that’s the message that we’re trying to send to our student-athletes,” Nielson said. “That, hey, this is a reflection on you and your teammates. As a result, you need to be aware of how you utilize these sites.”

Nielson added that the university was looking to remove the ban next year and just make the athletes responsible for their own online actions.

As for actually enforcing the ban, Boos said he doesn’t have a set time to check up on his athletes. He also said he didn’t feel that it’s unfair for his athletes to give up social-networking sites.

“They’re being given a privilege here, it’s not a right,” Boos said. “There are some rules that they have to follow that the typical college student doesn’t.”

UMD is not the only university that has faced embarrassing online situations before. Compromising photos of athletes from Elon University in North Carolina and Northwestern University were posted on the site Badjocks.com, resulting in scrutiny for the schools involved.

Bill Smith, associate director of women’s athletics at the University of Arkansas, has spoken at several conferences about the effects of social-networking sites on athletics departments.

Smith said student-athletes are public figures and no matter what they do – whether it be on a public street or on the Internet – it is going to be viewed and watched by others. Smith said he saw the new policies as mere extensions of team rules already in place.

“Some things never change; there are always going to be curfews and regulations on how a player conducts themselves,” Smith said. “(These Web sites) are just a new vehicle which those things come out through.”

Smith said the most important thing student-athletes need to realize is that administrators aren’t solely trying to protect their university’s image: they’re also trying to protect the athletes.

“Your university, your team or your athletic department may temporarily be impugned,” Smith said. “But it’s the individual who at the end of the day has a permanent problem.”

UMD volleyball player Crystal Hoffrogge said that she was really upset at first when the school banned social-networking sites. She said she used Facebook to stay in touch with high school friends before the ban.

Hoffrogge said she felt a double standard existed between how athletes and regular students are treated and thought it was unfair.

Heather Horton, a University track athlete and a graduate student in the dental school, said that most of her teammates are careful of what they post online, despite the fact that the University doesn’t have a policy regarding site usage.

“I wouldn’t put anything on there I wouldn’t want my parents to see,” she said.

Smith said that most of the athletes he has worked with fall into one of three categories.

“There’s one third that’s terribly annoyed; there’s one third that are glad we told them and there’s one third that doesn’t care,” he said.

Smith also warned that it’s not just athletes who need to be careful with their online information.

“You’ve got to be careful of your identity and your reputation as an individual,” Smith said. “That’s true whether you’re a college athlete or not.”