My jaw dropped yesterday when I discovered that UNC associate athletic director of communications Steve Kirschner participated in a UNC sport symposium in April 2010 that had a segment of discussion titled:
Thou Shalt Not Tweet: Athletesâ€™ Social Networking Legal Rights vs. Institutional Control.
Monitoring social networking sites has become an enormous issue for athletic departments around the country. Do you allow kids to “tweet” and “facebook” at the risk of damaging your university’s reputation and the athletic programs for which they play? What is the proper balance between the rights for student-athletes to express themselves on social networking sites and the university’s need to protect its reputation? If you can’t disallow a student-athlete’s freedom of expression, then what level of monitoring should the university employ to monitor these sites to minimize future NCAA or public relations problems and most importantly provide a reasonable amount of institutional control?
The importance of this issue has surfaced in regards to the ongoing investigation of UNC’s football program. It has been widely speculated that comments made on Twitter by UNC defensive lineman Marvin Austin and South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders are what led the NCAA to begin the investigation.
Generally, players receiving benefits without the knowledge of any university official or coach often doesn’t result in major sanctions beyond suspensions of the involved players. Players usually have to pay back the benefits received or make a comparable donation to charity. Additionally, they may receive some sort of penalty as far game participation, however the university avoids the dreaded “lack of institutional control” finding that can be extremely damaging.
With the knowledge that Marvin Austin’s tweets led to this investigation, then that brings up many questions including:
Should it have been a reasonable expectation for UNC to monitor more closely the interactions of their student-athletes on social networking sites? Or in this case is being naive, inexperienced, or uninformed a valid excuse? If you remember back to Butch Davis’ original comments on “Agentgate”, then Butch made this claim:
“We will learn something about this world that’s out there that maybe we were somewhat naive about, or maybe not as educated, or maybe didn’t know as much about, and I think we’ll be a lot better program because of it.”
Let’s look at a few occurrences from the past:
1. Former UNC teammate Kentwan Balmer paid travel and training costs for Marvin Austin and Cam Thomas to go to California in the summer of 2009 and train at a professional type of facility.
2. According to message board reports of an interview done on local radio last week with the N&O’s J.P. Giglio, Giglio confirmed that UNC knew about this trip previously and didn’t report it to the NCAA(we are working on the assumption that the reports are accurate, however we didn’t personally hear the interview to vouch specifically for what Giglio said). Interestingly enough, Giglio hasn’t written on this aspect of the story, so maybe the reports of what Giglio said aren’t completely accurate. Otherwise, this would be major news certainly worthy of an article explaining why this trip either wasn’t reported by UNC’s football staff to UNC’s compliance department, not investigated by the compliance department if it was reported, and/or not reported to the NCAA if the compliance department was informed of the trip.
This should have at least been a red flag for the coaching staff or athletic department to step up monitoring/education efforts through all channels.
3. Back in February of 2008, this report surfaced from the local ABC affiliate WTVD:
CHAPEL HILL — Eyewitness News has a follow up to a special report we brought you in November about college athletes and their personal Web pages.
Specifically, Facebook and the pictures they’re posting on them — pictures that could get them in trouble.
Back then, we showed officials from the big three Triangle universities pictures of their athletes drinking under age. The schools told us they would crack down. But since then, we’ve found new pictures — pictures that shocked us and may shock you….
….Even less funny to some is that the man in blackface has had the pictures on his Facebook page since November 2006 and that he a football player at UNC.
Eyewitness News found the photos just months after showing pictures of football players from all three Triangle universities drinking under age to campus officials.
Back then, UNC’s head football coach, Butch Davis, assured ABC11’s Rebecca Hall that his staff would better monitor what their players posts on all social networking sites.
University Chancellor James Moeser wouldn’t comment on the pictures. He referred Eyewitness News to the athletic department…
“We try to educate the players and talk to them about their roles as role models and then also about privacy,” Davis told Eyewitness News in November 2007.
…UNC’s Kirschner did call Eyewitness News back after his initial comments to add that while the player wasn’t trying to be insensitive, “it is questionable and highly debatable if it is in good taste of judgment any time a person dresses or portrays themselves as a person of another race.”
Notice both Kirschner and Davis mentioned and quoted in this article so certainly they have some real-life experience as to the potential damage social networking sites can cause. Also note that a Facebook issue first surfaced in 2007 and then again in 2008.
4. Of course, we have the already mentioned UNC Sport Symposium with UNC’s Kirschner as a participant:
College athletesâ€™ right to use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are among the topics to be discussed at a public symposium to kick off the 2010 Scholarly Conference on College Sport April 21-23 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The one-day Issues in College Sport Symposium on April 21 will be followed by two full days of academic research presentations by sport management faculty from across the nation to discuss issues in college athletics…
…Highlights of the symposium include these sessions:
â€œThou Shalt Not Tweet: Athletesâ€™ Social Networking Legal Rights vs. Institutional Control.â€
Panelists will examine how athletics departments approach their student-athletes posting on Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Panelists include Kathleen Hessert, president, Sports Media Challenge; Lester Munson, legal analyst, ESPN; Steve Kirschner, UNC associate athletics director for communications; and Ronnie Ramos, director of new media strategies, National Collegiate Athletic Association.
A symposium in April of 2010 on the exact problem that eventually led to Agentgate and Nannygate? The trips and tweets that led to the NCAA investigation occurred in March, April, and May of 2010, yet right in the middle of these shenanigans UNC’s Associate Athletic Director Steve Kirschner is hosting a panel discussion on the exact topic that was about to start this mess? You can’t be serious? Instead of participating on this panel, Kirschner should have been hunkered down in his office scouring Twitter to fend off the NCAA.
The issue of how much control an institution can exert over the messages posted by athletes is very much up for debate. The University of North Carolina is using the media network to connect fans and students to athletes, in the hopes of extending their Tar Heel brand even further. UNC associate director of athletics, Steve Kirschner, describes this as a learning process and one that they believe requires the athletic department to carefully monitor what athletes tweet or put up on their Facebook pages.
â€œSchools need to do a better job of educating student-athletes about social media,â€ said Kirschner, who said one student landed in hot water when a vulgar, but private, tweet made its way into the mainstream media when one of the private viewers made it public.
â€œThe players should only talk online as if they were at a press conference,â€ he added.
So considering all this information, we know that UNC’s athletic department(primarily Kirschner) was anything but naive, lacking experience, or uneducated on the potential damage that athletes’ actions on social networking sites can cause.
Also this recent quote from Butch Davis confirms he is totally aware of this issue as well:
â€œOne of the things we do with all of those kinds of things is we talk to kids about electronics, the media,â€ UNC coach Butch Davis said. â€œAnd this just isnâ€™t as a knee-jerk reaction. Weâ€™ve been doing this ever since Iâ€™ve ever been the head football coach is just talking about the YouTubes, the Facebooks. â€¦ You just have to try to educate them as best you can about making smart decisions.
Kirschner said the players are responsible for what they put on social media sites just as they are responsible for what they say in a news conference. He said coaches, administrators and sports information directors are constantly talking with athletes about Twitter and Facebook, and freshmen receive a presentation when they get on campus. Kirschner said each sport is responsible for monitoring their playersâ€™ social media accounts.
Ever heard the saying about throwing someone under the bus? That was Kirschner doing it to Butch.
Based on all of this information and the events that have occurred, it is hard to fathom how UNC’s coaching staff wasn’t aware of the comments by Marvin Austin and other UNC football players on Twitter. At best they were lazy or didn’t have the time to monitor the actions of their players. At worst, they knew about the actions and ignored them. Either way, according to Kirschner the responsibility falls back on the football coaching staff.
However, Kirschner might be considered an expert on social networking issues considering his vast experience with Facebook incidents, past comments about these incidents, and his obvious working knowledge of social network site issues in college athletics as it relates to institutional control based on the symposium in April. Considering his vast experience, then the policy of UNC’s athletic department to shift the responsibility of monitoring social networking sites to the coaches obviously should come under fire and raises an issue of lack of institutional control within the athletic department. Kirschner has lectured that these websites need to be monitored closely by universities, yet somehow UNC’s policy leaves that monitoring up to the coaches.
From UNC’s side of this story, if sufficient program/institutional control was in place, then UNC quashes the “Agentgate” scandal early, they self-report various agent activities/improper benefits involving a few players, and those players miss some games. The NCAA most likely never steps foot on campus, no investigations of John Blake occur, and “Nannygate” never happens. Most importantly, it avoids a deeper, longer investigation into the UNC athletic department that may now spillover to other sacred programs at UNC.
The lesson from this scandal is for college athletic departments around the country to limit participation or at least monitor social networking sites closely, quickly isolate possible NCAA infractions, and self-report any issues to avoid the NCAA arriving on campus. If the NCAA shows up your front door step, then there is no telling what sort of “Nannygate” might happen next.