Would Social Media Guidance for Young Athletes Prevent Bad Conduct, Lawsuits?

May 8 2014, 6:02pm CDT | by

It appears school-aged athletes and coaches are still fumbling their own way around trying to figure out social media, based on a large majority of football coaches reporting in a recent survey that their schools provide no training regarding or guidance regarding online etiquette.

In theory, having policy and training regarding social media might help schools and athletes prevent incidents, and battles among coaches, parents and students over what to do about them. However, situations such as a threatened lawsuit in Wisconsin by parents of girls kept off the all-conference volleyball team because of a violation/not-violation of social media policy make me wonder how foolproof any guidance or training might be.

Between April 26 and May 4, 201 self-identified high school football coaches, and 21 self-identified college football coaches, responded to a survey posted on the site of Chris Fore, a former athletic director and football coach who now runs a California-based consulting business to help coaches through the employment process.

Even Fore acknowledges this isn’t a terribly scientific study. But I would guess if your child in high school sports, or you coach it, or you have a relative who coaches it, the results don’t seem terribly off. Well, except for the 95 percent of coaches who said they use social media. That might be because Fore used his Twitter account to promote the study, so this is a self-selected group of coaches familiar with social media.

You can look at the survey results, and Fore’s commentary, here. To me, the most interesting part was that the school sports world is still largely left to its own devices in figuring out social media, despite its seeming ubiquity among students and young athletes. For example:

– Just 31 percent of coaches said their school offers “some type of program to train students about the proper use of social media.”

– Only 35 percent of coaches said their school or district has a social media policy of any kind. Merely 25 percent said their school athletic department has a social media policy.

– Only 20 percent of coaches said their school or district has any policy about either following — or not following — students on social media. For what it’s worth, 57 percent of coaches reported they follow their athletes on social media outlets, 27 percent allow athletes to friend them on Facebook, and 64 percent allow their team members to follow them on Twitter.

Fore called for more schools and athletic departments to institute social media policy — now. He wrote on his site:

However, school administrators have GOT to get a grasp of their approach to Social Media. Like many social issues/problems, parents have dropped the ball for the most part. We need to educate our children about their use of Social Media. It’s just as important these days as teaching them about sex, drugs/alcohol, how to drive, nutrition, etc. In fact, in some cases, I would argue that it’s MORE important to teach our students digital citizenry than these other issues schools have as a regular part of the school coursework.

The idea of policy, of course, is that it sets parameters for behavior and clear punishments when standards are violated. Right now, many schools and athletic departments are using existing policy regarding athlete conduct and shoehorning social media into it, or they’re just make it up on the fly, particularly after a high-profile social media faux pas. Fore reported 43 percent of coaches said they’ve had athletes busted for social media-related issue, and he broke down the most common reasons — “general inappropriate conduct,” “talking trash,” “alcohol/drugs,” “coaching complaints” and “inappropriate pictures/nudity/partial nudity.” But the survey didn’t get into how policy, or lack thereof, affected those penalties, or the specific nature of the punishment.

Having formal guidance and policy, though, might not make coaches’ issues with social media any less thorny.

For example, how do you teach athletes the wisest use of social media? You can talk about what gets them in trouble in life and with their school, and what is merely uncool, and what is a positive. (Fore developed his own template for athletic departments). However, you have to do so in a way that avoids hectoring, lest this be as ineffective as DARE was in preventing children from using drugs.

Of course, by high school, it might be too late to pull athletes aside to break their habits. New Jersey recently passed a law requiring “social media responsibility training” for all students in grades 6-8 – not just athletes, but even that may be too late. For example, my 8-year-old daughter already knows how to text her friends through her Apple iPod Touch. (Please feel free to share in the comment section why that makes me a bad parent.) Some elementary schools are offering a controlled social network to their students (my 11-year-old and 8-year-old have access to a site called Gaggle) that is My First Social Media Site, with monitors, automatic and human, to make sure no bad words or impure thoughts get through.

We’re still working through a generation gap, with kids who have grown up texting and tweeting (or using whatever social-network-of-the-week that’s popped up) as a matter of course being confronted by adults who might use the technology, but didn’t grow up with it enough to have it implanted in their DNA.

So what about policy? In general, policy is becoming a more difficult issue because parents seem much more willing to sue over it. And win. But beyond that, what is appropriate punishment for a social media violation? Who is going to lurk on social media accounts without looking like a creep? Do athletes have to hand over passwords? Do you react only when someone else forwards evidence of misconduct? (My kids’ high school athletic director warns in every parent meeting that he gets sent evidence of inappropriate conduct online.) Who is supposed to parse whether an athlete is making a light joke, or blowing off steam for a moment as a teenager would, and what is really conduct detrimental to the team? And who makes the final decision over what is a violation — and the right punishment?

In Wisconsin, it appears two sets of volleyball parents are going to sue their high school over social media policy — specifically because it resulted in their daughters being excluded from even being discussed for all-conference honors, even though their play (by any objective account) would put them up for consideration. From the Wisconsin State Journal:

Ritch and Vickie Stevenson and Thomas and Jodi Swiggum, the parents of five members of last season’s [North Crawford High] varsity team, filed defamation claims in February totaling $450,000 against [volleyball coach Anna] Davidson, high school athletic director David Bergum and other school officials.

The school board denied the claims last month, giving the families until Sept. 27 to decide whether to take the cases to court. …

The claims state that Bergum and Davidson told one or more Ridge and Valley coaches that the girls had been under investigation for athletic code misconduct and faced possible suspension, leading the coaches to snub the girls in the all-conference voting./>/>

The claims stated that Davidson spoke with the athletes about the social media comments three weeks before the Oct. 28 all-conference selection meeting and told them she would not impose any penalties.

However, the claim stated, other school officials were displeased with Davidson’s decision. The claims allege that Bergum incorrectly told one or more Ridge and Valley coaches that the girls had received an athletic code violation for misconduct. The claims state that the school board failed to investigate the matter properly when prompted by the parents.

The alleged social media violation, by the way, involved the players’ postings about Davidson, their then-new coach, No. 4 on Fore’s violation list. In further mixed messaging, the school, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, nominating one of the alleged social-media violators for a statewide scholar-athlete award, which she received.

I doubt that any guidance or policy will solve every situation, but I can understand Fore’s contention that having something is better than having nothing, and at least high school athletes will learn how their posts are viewing by the wider, more uptight world. But coaches, athletic departments, schools and districts need to collaborate to deliver effective guidance and policy. Or, at least, to make the deposition answers more consistent.

 
 

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