Authorities on the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota (UMD) have banned student athletes at the school from having accounts on social networking sites like MySpace and Friendster. The story in the local Duluth newspaper is surprisingly good, giving both sides of the debate and avoiding the sort of “Interthreat” sensationalism often found in such reporting (even in the New York Times).
The school, too, sounds more reasonable than one might expect given their disproportionate response of banning social networking altogether. The coaches appear to be most concerned about the possibility that athletes will post embarrassing material that will then get picked up by badjocks.com, a muckraking site with the slogan, “Where COPS meets SportsCenter.” Since these students have a high profile in their community, heightened concern may be warranted. As UMD’s athletic director said:
The policy is designed to encourage responsible behavior among student athletes and remind them that they are considered public figures, said Bob Nielson, UMD athletic director.
“Student athletes are very much known and so unfortunately scrutinized to a higher degree,” he said. “We’re not trying to, in the long range, prohibit student athletes from being involved in these kinds of things, but educating them.”
The problem, of course, is that simply forbidding social networking does nothing to educate students about its perils. (That’s in addition to other problems, raised in the article and in the thoughtful online reader comments, such as: (1) the policy is almost unenforceable; (2) athletes will put their accounts back up as soon as the season is over; and (3) non-athlete students outside the policy can and do post pictures and stories about the jocks on their own accounts.)
It’s a familiar story of overreacting to legitimate concerns about some people’s unwise use of the internet by enacting overly broad bans. We’ve talked about it on this blog before — see here and here and here and here — well, just check out the “filtering” tag.
At least here, the ban seems to be only an interim plan:
The policy for next year probably will change again, Nielson said. The athletic department is researching other options, including having student athletes sign a contract before their season begins that says they will use Internet networking sites responsibly or face consequences.
Currently, if the site of a student athlete is discovered, “we would ask them to remove it,” Nielson said. If inappropriate content is found, the student would be disciplined according to the athletic department’s code of conduct.
Still, how hard is it to write language into the code of conduct requiring that student athletes use this technology responsibly, as opposed to banning them from using it at all? How difficult can it be for coaches to talk to their players about good judgment when presenting themselves to the world, online or off? (Indeed, don’t they talk about that already? Shouldn’t they?) And meanwhile, why should all athletes be cut off from one of the principal modes of social interaction for their generation?