Social media a growing concern in high school athletics

2014-03-01T23:00:00Z 2014-03-02T23:59:04Z Social media a growing concern in high school athleticsJim Peters james.peters@nwi.com, (219) 548-4363 nwitimes.com
March 01, 2014 11:00 pm  • 

Two years ago while conducting tryouts, Lake Central baseball coach Jeff Sandor told players they would have to make a sacrifice to be on the team, and it had nothing to do with bunting.

"We had some big-time, Type-A personalities," Sandor said. "If they were going to go on this ride, they couldn't have Twitter."

Talk about a pre-emptive strike. About three months later, an assistant coach from the team Lake Central was facing in the LaPorte Regional authored negative Twitter messages about the Lake Central Indians. Rather than engage in online mud-slinging, Sandor printed screen photos with the comments and used them as a motivational tool.

L.C. not only won that day, it also went on to capture the state title.

"I don't think I'd ever heard of (Twitter) before," said Sandor, who asks parents for help in monitoring players' social media activity.

"It's not a place to air your dirty laundry, anything that could be ammo. You don't know who's reading it. High school sports is supposed to be a game of fun. There's no reason to create any enemies."

Communicating on social media, first in the form of MySpace, then Facebook and Twitter as well as other forms, is common among young people. Coaches and athletic directors at region high schools and colleges have just started to explore how to deal with what their student-athletes post on those sites.

"A lot of people would be shocked at what kids put out there, what's going on in their lives," Sandor said.

Portage was on the cutting edge, implementing a policy in 2009. Former Athletic Director Jeff Smith looked into it and found a plan used by North Carolina State University, which he adapted for Portage.

The rules are now part of Portage's athletic handbook. The school does not ban social media use. Instead, two pages of rules specify what student-athletes can and cannot post on social media and warns violators could face disciplinary action. Students and parents are required to sign a social media form. 

"It was needed at the time," Portage Athletic Director Kelly Bermes said. "It's come in handy. (The problem) never goes away, but at least the policy is there now and we have some guidelines for when we need it.

"It's amazing how big it is now, all the stuff that goes on."

Wheeler and Crown Point used Portage's template to establish their own parameters.

"It was something new and people were putting items on there, inappropriate pictures, things that could be interpreted as bullying," Crown Point Athletic Director Bill Dorulla said. "It was getting out of control and we thought we needed to come up with a policy to address those issues. The landscape's changed. Every kid here has a Chrome Book and laptop."

Wheeler encountered similar problems early on. Students posted pictures from parties where alcohol was involved, not knowing they were subject to punishment from the school.

"I want to believe they've caught on, that they're getting smarter," Wheeler Athletic Director Randy Stelter said. "We had a rash of incidents a couple years ago; then when we put the hammer down and we haven't had any violations."

Still, many type before they think. Posts, tweets and messages can be deleted, but once the words reach cyberspace, they're indelible.

"You tweet, one person sees it, they re-tweet it and the next thing you know, the entire school knows," Boone Grove senior Jon Hogg said. "It's one thing to joke with guys I know. If you're on there taking shots, karma comes back to bite you."

Hogg and his sister, Julie, were the subject of web-forum bashing when they transferred from Hebron. Athletes are often easy targets for critics hiding behind a computer screen, and it takes restraint to not fire back.

"My parents always said to take it with a grain of salt," Hogg said. "The moment you react to what they said, they've won the battle."

Locally, athletic department policies for social media are the exception, not the rule. The Indiana High School Athletic Association has imposed no regulations, rather leading by positive example with its Twitter, according to Sports Information Director Jason Wille.

In many schools, technology and Internet responsibility are addressed in student handbooks, but are not specific to athletes. Coaches discuss it within their sports and the subject is clearly on the radar in most athletic departments.

"We do not have a policy in place specifically for athletes," Westville Athletic Director Ken Shilt said. "Keeping that in mind, we are evaluating our current athletic code of conduct at the end of year and revising for next year."

Crown Point is among a growing number of schools with Twitter accounts for sports. Like the others, they don't discourage using social media. Their aim is to inform and educate.

"A lot of people get in trouble using devices, not just kids," Dorulla said.

"There's a lot of positives to it. We use it to get information out ... to put up pictures when we win stuff. We try to tell kids it's another way of communicating and in doing so, you have to be careful with what you share with people and also what you post. Don't put anything on there you don't want everybody to see."

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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