COLLEGE ATHLETES ON SOCIAL MEDIA: 'YOUR REPUTATION IS ALWAYS ON THE LINE'
The real-world challenges college athletic departments face because of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all their cousins are nearly impossible to predict. The mistakes born of those challenges are equally easy to make.
There is basically no outlier in that fight — programs have dealt with the consequences of athlete behavior on and around social media.
And many have tried to be proactive, educating athletes on how to responsibly use various platforms, and how to behave in the public forum they've created.
"It's just really important to be honest and really important to remind them as much as you possibly can, that your reputation is always on the line," said J.D. Campbell, an IU assistant athletic director and head sports information director for men's basketball.
"Break it down to them that this is your family, you represent your family first," Campbell said. "When you make it personal, I think it has more traction."
Perils of a transparent world
Social media can be a friend or an enemy of a college athlete, and their program. Last April, it was the latter for Indiana men's basketball players Yogi Ferrell and Stanford Robinson.
That's when Ferrell and Robinson were cited for trying to enter a Bloomington nightclub underage during Little 500 week. Random passersby broadcast the news on Twitter.
This is the nightmare scenario for any department. Not so much the incident, but the inherent danger in a public where anyone with a camera phone is a reporter.
College students are inundated with warnings about social media, and what might follow them out of college and into the workplace. Be careful, they're told, because you don't know what an employer might find.
For athletes, given their public stature, that's only magnified.
"We live, almost, in a transparent world today," said David Ablauf, Michigan's associate athletic director. "Every person that you walk by has the potential to be a reporter."
It can be serious, as it was for IU in April. It can be as harmless as dozing off in class.
Before this year's college football national title game, CFB Nation sent out a simple tweet: "Who will win the National Championship Game? (Retweet) for #OhioState (favorite) for Oregon."
Innocuous enough, until injured Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller accidentally hit favorite. By the time he could realize his mistake, his slip of hand had gone viral.
"There's a fine line between the positive benefits of it, and the negatives," former IU football player Mark Murphy said about his general approach to social media. "I think it's best — if you use social media as a student-athlete — to use it minimally, and to be more of a consumer of it rather than putting stuff out there and producing it."
Four-year job interview
During a recent meeting with the IU women's basketball team, associate athletic director Jeremy Gray touched on social media awareness.
"You're unlike an average student in so many different ways," Gray told the players. "'One of them is that your playing career at Indiana is like a four-year job interview."
That's not just Indiana's approach. Ablauf said he tells athletes that "social media habits, social media in general, really can help make or break getting you a job."
So schools educate athletes, follow and monitor them on social media, constantly remind them about their behavior. Sometimes, they train themselves.
Last spring, Indiana reached out to Derrick Mayes, a former North Central and Notre Dame standout who spent five years in the NFL. Mayes runs Executive Action Sports & Entertainment, which bills itself as a "problem-solving" firm.
In Bloomington, Mayes sat down with IU athletes and presented a series of tweets and Facebook posts to them. Names and pictures were blacked out, but the posts came from their peers.
"That kind of was a display to them of how dangerous social media can be," Gray said, "and how careful you have to be on it."
Gray, who works closely with Indiana's programs in social media training, said the presentation was so well-received by athletes that IU had Mayes repeat it with his staff.
"You'd be alarmed by some of the things that staff had put out there," Gray said. "It really did have kind of a pretty strong shock value in how things, especially when they're taken out of context, could be dangerous."
Most schools take the same general approach to social media education, meeting with athletes before the start of the fall semester and/or their athletic season for in-depth training. Refresher courses are scheduled as needed.
Many programs monitor their athletes on social media. Some go further. Purdue men's basketball coach Matt Painter requires all players to abstain from Twitter during the season. Rick Pitino made the same decision recently at Louisville.
Some athletes have imposed their own exile from social media. IU junior guard Yogi Ferrell, seeking an escape from the distraction of Twitter, shut his account down for good in the offseason.
"It's been a big advantage for me," he said. "I like not having Twitter anymore. I haven't really missed it ever since I got rid of it."
Some schools encourage social media, as a form of professional training.
Chris Werle, senior associate AD for strategic communications at Minnesota, said his department's approach to social media education is meant to serve as training for the future as well. More and more, he said, employers seek candidates proficient in social media use. Giving athletes the freedom to learn and grow on those platforms can have long-term benefits.
"When you go about using it, use it for a positive outcome, use it to build your personal brand," Ablauf said, parroting Werle's point. "Your social media habits, social media in general, really can help make or break getting you a job."
More and more, coaches and administrators are finding athletes better equipped to take care of themselves in an increasingly widening social media world.
From Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to more recently developed products — like anonymous apps Yik Yak and Whisper — the face of social media is changing every year. But athletes are growing more adaptable every year.
Why? Because they've grown up with it, largely.
"I think Twitter and Facebook, in these generations with these college athletes or students, that has been a way to connect with people (for most of their lives)," Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. "For them, that's just the way it's always been."
Combined with heightened awareness of the impact of social media at even the high school level, athletes walk in the door more aware of themselves in those public forums than ever before.
"I can speak for basketball and football — they are far better prepared and experienced in dealing with the media," Campbell said. "I think they know they're getting that experience when they're being recruited."
That, in turn, allows coaches and programs to use social media as an engine for positive news.
When Indiana made a late push to build the Heisman campaign of running back Tevin Coleman at the end of last season, it used Twitter as a primary means of spreading its message. It was a message teammates helped take up.
"We try to stay positive with it," IU football coach Kevin Wilson said. "I kind of laughed years ago where people were banning people from doing it. Technically, it's freedom of speech, and everyone's entitled to that."
Social media will probably continue to provide headaches for coaches and administrators in college athletics. Even the slightest slip of the hand can turn into a viral story.
But it can also be a fantastic tool for good – for athletes, programs, departments. In trained, educated hands, that is.
"If you're smart about it," Murphy said, "You can use it to your advantage."
By Zach Osterman, posted on indystar.com