Local athletic officials take wait-and-see approach with social networking

CNJ photo illustration: Liliana Castillo

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

Athletes run, jump, shoot pass and hit. Volumes of pages couldn’t sum up local philosophies on managing those.

They also Tweet, MySpace and Facebook. Regarding those social networking verbs, the response could fit in a text message: Ask me later.

Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach banned usage of Twitter two weeks ago after a handful of players posted grumblings in the wake of the team’s loss to Houston. While local athletic departments say they understand Leach’s decision, they’re trying to be patient.

“It must be a wait-and-see approach because it hasn’t come up on our radar,” said Jeff Geyser, athletic director at Eastern New Mexico University. “I’m not saying we’re not going to examine it, but I think all of our coaches have their own specific policy.”

For example, Greyhound football coach Mark Ribaudo said many of his assistants have Facebook accounts created from their college days, and they try to monitor their players as they’d monitor any other behavior.

“That’s something so new, we’ve never had a problem with it,” Ribaudo said. “If people start putting nonsense up there, I’ll get a policy pretty quick.”

Twitter, Facebook and MySpace all allow users to create profiles and share photos, links and status updates — often via cell phone. Users have the option to require others to follow or request an online connection to share that information.

“From a positive standpoint,” Geyser said, “some of this technology really helps us communicate with fans and alumni who want to follow Greyhound and Zia athletics.”

The university currently has about 50 followers on its Twitter account (@enmusports) and more than double that as a Facebook fan page. The Twitter account is updated via text message at ENMU sporting events, usually after a score.

“I get asked questions by people following us (during the game),” Sports Information Director Adam Pitterman said. “They’re basically looking for more details.”

Geyser said he’s received correspondence from fans who can follow the college while they’re serving overseas in the military, and he’d like to do more broadcasting of events online when it becomes less cost-prohibitive.

In prep sports, however, interpersonal communication requires a different approach because its participants are often minors. Clovis High Athletic Director Brian Stacy said to avoid establishing inappropriate relationships, coaches and athletes are expected to communicate online only within respective peer groups.

As a supervisor of all teams, however, Stacy tries to keep tabs on anything involving athletes.

“We do get involved in Facebook, MySpace to make sure kids understand we monitor those,” Stacy said. “If they’re putting (up) derogatory comments, bad pictures, pictures of them at a party with alcohol, we’ve got a problem.”

Soon before Leach banned Twitter use by players, one linebacker used his account to complain Leach was late for a meeting. Stacy doesn’t care if he finds that stuff, and said his main concerns are team rules and legal matters.

“I make sure the kids know they’ll be suspended,” Stacy said, “even kicked off the team if I catch them doing stuff like that, and I’ve had to do that.”

Though Division II ENMU doesn’t get nearly the media attention of a Texas Tech, officials understand college players get more media spotlight. Pitterman admits he fears the damage-control he’ll have to tackle if and when an ENMU athlete openly criticizes the school or a coach.

But he also notes that’s well out of his control.

“You’re always concerned about (fallout), but that’s no different from when there was an interview and somebody would shoot their mouth off,” Pitterman said. “The only difference is it reaches more people.”

At a certain point, athletic directors said, trust has to be given to athletes who grew up with social networking and understand it better than their coaches. With that in mind, Portales High School Athletic Director Mark McAfee said, the approach is hands-off for now.

“The only time we know there’s a problem is when it manifests itself at the high school,” McAfee said. “I have a hard enough time monitoring them when I’m responsible for them, let alone when they’re at their house.”