Web photos keep athletes on guard

This fall, when varsity athletes attended their notoriously repetitive annual National Collegiate Athletics Association clearance meeting, a new page in the rulebook broke the monotony and gave them one more thing to dread. Not only would their behavior stand up to scrutiny on the field and in the classroom, it would also be monitored in cyberspace.

In its manual this year, the Yale Athletics Department specifically cautions students against sharing incriminating photos on Web sites such as Facebook and webshots.com.

“We were kind of shocked that so much investigating was going on into the personal lives of athletes,” said Anja Perlebach ’07, varsity women’s volleyball captain. “It is true, however, that we are chosen to represent our school on and off of the court.”

Every year, the Yale Athletics Department holds eligibility meetings in which administrators talk to students about the various standards and policies in the student athlete handbook, emphasizing the issue of hazing, a practice that is prohibited by both the department and Connecticut law. But administrators have never before discussed the issue in the context of the web and the public sphere.

Although it does not state a specific policy, the manual warns, “The results of … decisions to post photos about you or personal information may lead to negative local and national publicity and potential disciplinary action for your team and/or individuals.”

As a result, coaches have spoken to their teams and athletes and have talked with one another. The warning has not so much altered the ways the student athletes conduct themselves, but it has made them more wary of how this conduct manifests itself in the public sphere.

The Yale manual’s newest addition was a direct response to various scandals in the media last spring, one of which involved the hazing of Northwestern University’s women’s soccer team. This past May, the Web site badjocks.com published images of this initiation and several others, which included photographs of underage drinking, forced exercise, blindfolds, the binding of hands, and simulated sexual acts, along with commentary.

Though administrators in the athletic department said they have not yet encountered any damaging photos of Yale athletes, department members said they believe a warning is necessary.

“We want our athletes to be cognizant of bad publicity,” said Amy Backus, assistant athletics director of compliance and varsity administration. “We want students to be careful because pictures they think are going to be private are not always private.”

Backus also noted that an institution such as Yale has to be especially careful because of its reputation as an Ivy League university.

While the idea of a stranger sitting at his computer and typing “Yale athletics AND initiation” into Google image search may seem a little far flung, such a situation is not unprecedented. Bob Reno, publisher of badjocks.com, said it was through Internet browsing that he and his team came across pictures of hazings on webshots.com.

The idea that such images could be extracted from personal Web sites by a group of bloggers poses a new problem for the collegiate athletic world. Now that student life on and off the field is so public, reputations of athletes and their institutions are more vulnerable than ever.

“People take the way you present yourself and your team very seriously,” said Ellie Brophy ’08, a member of the women’s golf team.

Despite the increased media attention since last spring and the effect it has had on teams across the nation, the NCAA has created no official policy regarding personal Web sites and postings. Rather, the NCAA has left policy making to the discretion of member colleges and universities, NCAA spokeswoman Crissy Schluep said.

Schluep said several NCAA membership groups, including student-athlete advisory committees and the Academics/Eligibility/Compliance Cabinet Recruiting Subcommittee, have discussed the implications of the proliferation of personal Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook. But she said there are currently no proposals in the NCAA addressing these Web sites.

Still, several NCAA campuses have prohibited their students from posting on personal sites. Included in these schools are Kent State and Loyola Universities.

Reno said he believes such rules and policies devoted to Internet postings is the wrong way to address issues of hazing and illicit intoxication.

“This is kind of a backward way to approach it,” Reno said. “Schools really need to be working harder to cut down on hazing and spend less time making policies about pictures that might embarrass the university.”

The Yale Athletics Department also has not created an official policy concerning photos posted on the Internet, but members of the Athletics Department said they are strongly encouraging students to consider the potential damage that can result from the accessibility of personal information and photos on the Internet.

“Everyone is aware of what has happened to student-athletes who post stuff that has gotten national attention,” Director of Yale Athletics Thomas Beckett said. “We just want to give our students a forewarning.”

This year, administrators also posed new questions to the athletes at the eligibility meetings along the lines of, “How would your parents feel if they saw this?” Brophy said.

Yale teams have taken the issue seriously, with coaches and team captains encouraging players to think twice before posting potentially damaging material online.

“I know that many coaches, including myself, have talked to their players about not having anything on their personal sites that would embarrass our football program,” football head coach Jack Siedlecki said.

Though personal Web sites such as Facebook are new concerns for Siedlecki and his colleagues, they said they know better than to underestimate the harm the Internet can do to their players’ reputations.

“Our coach informed us about the scandal last spring,” Perlebach said. “She just wanted to make sure we all knew what was going on, and that we made sure that we did not make the same mistakes so many other teams did.”

Many student athletes have made a point of detagging photographs on Facebook to avoid attracting negative attention.

Men’s soccer captain Jordan Rieger ’07 said he received a call last spring from his coach when the scandal with badjocks.com broke. Since then, he said, his team has been more careful than it had been in the past. If there is a team event or party, Rieger said, the athletes will encourage each other to avoid posting pictures of actions that could be interpreted in a negative manner.

“But since summer, the issue hasn’t really come up,” Rieger said. “We are very focused on the season and the team.”

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