Social networking sites brings new challenges to TCU athletes

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    In September 2009, Mike Leach banned football players from using Twitter after linebacker Marlon Williams noted then-coach Mike Leach’s tardiness to a team meeting in a tweet. Then, prior to last season, the University of Miami and Boise State University head coaches also banned players from the social media site.

    As Twitter becomes more popular, the issue of student-athletes’ use of the site is coming to TCU.

    Director of Athletics Media Relations Mark Cohen said the direct access provided by social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to student-athletes can be a good thing but that it brings a new set of challenges in making sure athletes are smart about social media usage.

    “Really in athletics, we don’t have a policy across the board [regarding social networking],” Cohen said. “It’s up to each individual sport, and within that sport you have coaches or other personnel within the program that address student athletes [about Facebook and Twitter]. They’re advised to keep in mind who’s going to be looking at your pages and who is going to be following your tweets.”

    Senior Jackie Torda, a former TCU soccer player, said at the beginning of each year, the media relations staff and head women’s soccer coach Dan Abdalla would talk to team members about keeping their Facebook pages free of any inappropriate material. She said the talk didn’t spend much time on Twitter but that the talk was helpful.

    “Especially being a student-athlete, there’s people out there looking for ways to get you in trouble,” Torda said. “So you’ve just got to be smart about it. I think the administration in athletics has done a good job of making us aware of what we should put on there.”

    But coaches may not be experts in social media themselves.

    Abdalla declined to be interviewed, saying he didn’t really know anything about Twitter. But that hasn’t stopped some university athletes from joining the five-year-old social network.

    Currently, there are 18 Twitter accounts claimed to be written by current TCU student-athletes, with half of those set to private and blocked from public view.

    Jacque Lambiase, an associate professor of strategic communication, said keeping account settings private is one way for student-athletes to participate in social media, as is creating online aliases on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. She said she hates to see student-athletes not be able to do what most students can do online, but she agrees there are extra risks for athletes on Twitter.

    “I think if professional athletes and student-athletes realized that everything they say in social media is just like shouting something out to a sideline fan, [and] that lots of people will be listening in on that, they’ll probably do better in terms of saying the right thing and not saying things that are too personal or [irrelevant] to fans,” Lambiase said.

    For those looking to follow university athletes, tweets range from former football player Andy Dalton (@adalton14) keeping followers updated on his preparations for the NFL draft to women’s basketball center Latricia (LT) Lovings (@LLovings21) cheering on the Dallas Mavericks and venting about daily frustrations on campus.

    But Twitter also is becoming a popular way for teammates to keep in touch and joke around, former women’s basketball player Emily Carter said.

    “It is kind of started being popular amongst a lot of my teammates, so I figured I’d give it a try,” Carter said. “And I actually like it now more than Facebook.”

    Torda said Twitter also became popular with the women’s soccer team last season, and she said she used her account to share inside jokes with teammates and to make social plans. Both she and Carter, though, keep their accounts private to keep the public from eavesdropping on conversations.

    Lambiase said inside jokes and sarcasm may be fine on private pages but saying those same things publicly could lead to misinterpretation.

    “You have to think, ‘Well, some people are dropping into the middle of this conversation, they don’t know the person I’m talking to [on Twitter] is my friend and they don’t know we’re messing around,’ so it really becomes like a big microphone,” Lambiase said.

    And Cohen said in today’s media environment, a sarcastic joke between friends can quickly become a headline.

    “Fans are going to look [student-athletes] up, and then the fans have other websites that they can say, ‘Hey, so-and-so said,’ or ‘Look at this picture they took.’ Then in turn, the media are going to see that,” Cohen said. “It’s a chain reaction, no doubt.”

    Cohen said the Athletics Department had yet to have any major issues arise with student-athletes and social media and the department usually heard about potential problems though word-of-mouth from fans, students and faculty.

    Torda said she’ll keep tweeting but was aware of the risks.

    “Sometimes you see [a post] on [Twitter or Facebook], and you really wish they hadn’t put that on there because it could lead to trouble,” Torda said. “But I think for the most part it’s a good tool if you’re smart and responsible about it.”