In wake of North Carolina investigation, ACC schools reevaluate social media policies for athletes

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 10:54 PM

In the past four months, the social media usage by players on the North Carolina football team played a significant role in embroiling the Tar Heels program in an NCAA investigation that may leave the team without many key contributors for at least Saturday night's season opener.

Subsequently, one-third of the ACC schools that previously did not have official social media usage policies in place have begun work to initiate them. While all 12 ACC athletic programs said they have warned student-athletes about the risks of using Twitter, Facebook and MySpace for the past few years, recent examples of the potential perils of such mediums have led several schools to make a more thorough examination of their guidelines.

At Maryland, athletic department officials from various backgrounds - compliance, marketing, media relations and coaching - have assembled to form an official policy on social media usage for players and coaches. Currently, each team is left to determine its own rules on the matter. For example, players on the men's basketball team are not allowed to use Twitter after 11 p.m., according to a team source who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Maryland student-athletes can be disciplined if they post anything on their Facebook account that violates the department's code of conduct, according to senior associate athletic director Kathy Worthington.

"We have some Internet guidelines for them to follow about, you know, what you post reflects on your role as a student-athlete," Worthington said. "We want to [form an official policy] as soon as possible, but it's also something that it's really, it's a complicated piece to look at because there's so many things in it."

Athletic department officials at Miami, North Carolina State and Georgia Tech also said they are in the process of formulating official social media usage policies for their student-athletes. At Virginia, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Wake Forest, Boston College and Duke, athletic department officials said they speak to their student-athletes before each season to warn them about using social media, but no official policy is in place and there are no immediate plans to initiate one.

Florida State has a written policy that prohibits student-athletes from posting "offensive or inappropriate" pictures or comments, as well as from posting any content that violates "the ethics and intent behind both the Student Code of Conduct AND the Student-Athlete Code of Conduct."

On Monday, North Carolina announced an alteration to its social media policy. Each team now must identify at least one coach or administrator whose responsibilities will entail monitoring each player's social networking sites and postings. This change stemmed in part from recent incidents involving Tar Heels football player Marvin Austin.

When Austin - a 6-foot-3, 310-pound defensive tackle out of Ballou High in the District - wanted to show off lavish expenditures in recent months, he posted that information on his Twitter account. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, Austin uploaded pictures of a watch for his younger sister, a bag from an upscale sunglasses store in Miami and a $143 bill from the Cheesecake Factory in the District before his account was disabled in July.

It wasn't always Austin's postings that created a stir. On May 15, Natalie Nunn - a model who has appeared on the reality television show "Bad Girls Club" - uploaded a photo on Twitter of her and another woman alongside Austin and fellow North Carolina football player Greg Little. The accompanying message read: "Poolside @anchormanaustin @sirgregory8 going down in miami!"

Austin was interviewed by the NCAA as part of an investigation into possible improper benefits provided to players by sports agents after he tweeted about attending a Memorial Day weekend party in Miami. He was suspended indefinitely by the team Wednesday. While his social media usage was not solely responsible, it served as a contributing factor.

At Georgia Tech, assistant athletic director for media relations Dean Buchan monitors the Twitter accounts and Facebook activity of more than 100 football players. He said there is a media relations staff member assigned to the same task for each Yellow Jackets team.

Buchan also said there can be benefits to players having access to social media sites. Many Georgia Tech football players promoted a recent open scrimmage on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. The ensuing fan turnout at the scrimmage was "really nice," Buchan said, though he could not be certain how much the players' social media advertising efforts had to do with it.

"It's not all negative," Buchan said. "It can assist with our marketing efforts in some ways. But certainly, our student-athletes are just made aware that even in cases where you think you may just be communicating with your friends, in quotation marks, basically everybody has access to your page, including future employers."

A few years ago, Georgia Tech brought in a media training specialist to speak with its football players. Buchan said that prior to the meeting, the specialist had "an attractive girl" initiate contact and communicate with as many players on the roster as she could. During the meeting, the specialist displayed the girl's photo on a projector screen and asked how many members of his audience knew her.

Nearly every player raised his hand.

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