ORONO, Maine — Social media’s popularity has created a growing challenge for University of Maine athletes, coaches and staff to make sure what is posted portrays the athletic program in a positive light.
With more than 400 student-athletes, the University of Maine athletics program has a large number of social media consumers who utilize platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
UMaine distributes a written copy of its social media policy to each student-athlete, and it must be signed to acknowledge they understand the terms.
“We tell them what you post not only represents you, but it represents your family, your school, your team,” said Eileen Flaherty, UMaine’s associate athletics director for compliance.
Social media posts are regulated by the UMaine Student-Athlete Code of Conduct and sometimes by team rules. Those activities are often monitored by staff members and coaches, whose efforts are intended to make sure the athletics department remains in compliance with NCAA rules.
Flaherty said the aim is to educate student-athletes about being responsible.
“I try to instill in the students a skill set so that they’re making good decisions on their postings so they shouldn’t have many issues,” said Flaherty, who meets with each team annually to go through all compliance rules.
Xavier Pollard, a junior on the UMaine men’s basketball team, is a frequent Twitter user. He admits he has sometimes vented frustration in his posts.
“You definitely have to be careful because some people interpret things differently,” Pollard said. “You’ve got to be careful what you say because you don’t want anybody to take it wrong.”
Maine baseball coach Steve Trimper theorizes that a certain personality type is susceptible to encountering problems.
“I think the attention-getters are the ones that can get themselves or our program or our university in trouble,” he said.
Trimper explained that his team is among those that address the use of social networking in their team rules.
“We say we don’t want to see any negativity on there,” he said. “We’d like to see positive words, positive energy, when you write those things.”
Ultimately, comments and photos published in good humor and in good taste can help student-athletes have a deeper connection to family, friends and Black Bear fans as part of their UMaine experience.
“It’s a tool,” Maine women’s basketball coach Richard Barron said. “There’s good and bad with everything. It’s just making sure that you use it properly, and you don’t let it control your life, and that you respect how other people may use it as well.”
Monitoring the masses
Keeping tabs on all of its student-athletes’ social media use is an impossible task for UMaine’s staff and coaches.
UMaine’s policy requests that athletes set their sites to “private,” and it states student-athletes, if asked, are required to give a coach, assistant coach and/or a member of the athletics department senior staff access to a social media page.
Flaherty said staff members and coaches try to “follow” student-athletes’ accounts, but concedes accountability among student-athletes also is a deterrent.
“We try to make sure if people see things, they say, ‘hey, this isn’t appropriate,’” she said.
Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove has 75-80 players on the roster. He said trying to follow their social media use would place an unfair burden on coaches.
“I don’t assign coaches to monitor that,” Cosgrove said. “Our coaches have lives outside the day-to-day grind of coaching football and managing young people.”
Instead, Cosgrove lays down the law early and often in regard to how how UMaine football players are expected to behave as, whether it’s on Twitter, campus or in the community.
“The guys on our team know very well how I feel about how we need to represent ourselves,” he said. “They need to understand not only how much damage they can do to our program but more importantly to themselves and to mom and dad.”
Flaherty said there occasionally are situations involving social media posts by UMaine student-athletes that must be addressed. She said most are resolved immediately.
“We’ve asked people to take stuff down [off the sites],” she said, explaining that coaches or staff members intervene if something objectionable is posted.
There haven’t been any high-profile incidents recently, but photos posted on Facebook resulted in sanctions for UMaine student-athletes in 2007.
The university suspended three softball players for two games, barred the team from practicing for a week and placed the program on three years probation after photos of a hazing party appeared on the Internet. The actions were deemed to have violated UMaine’s student-athlete code of conduct.
Elsewhere, the NCAA has sanctioned student-athletes for Twitter posts.
Benefits and problems
The student-athletes have a variety of opinions about the use of social media, its benefits and potential problems.
Pollard summed up some of the benefits of social media for a college student-athlete.
“Every social engine connects people throughout the world,” Pollard said. “If I don’t talk to someone every day, they can see my daily stuff on Twitter, and we can interact easily on there instead of texting everybody.”
Ashleigh Roberts, a senior on the women’s basketball team, sees Twitter as a fast, easy way to stay in touch.
“I use it because I’m not too great at staying in contact with people over the phone,” she said. “I use it pretty much to keep up with my friends back home [in Delaware], old classmates, old teammates.”
While Tweeting or sending direct messages on Twitter and Facebook can be entertaining, even some frequent users recognize it can be hard to escape the allure of doing so.
It is not uncommon for UMaine student-athletes to pull the plug, at least temporarily, on their social media use.
UMaine men’s basketball players Dimitry Akanda-Coronel and Shaun Lawton are roommates. In December, they decided to delete their respective Twitter accounts.
“It’s distracting. I did it a lot, that’s why I had to delete it,” explained Akanda-Coronel, who found himself walking around campus with his eyes glued to his cell phone.
Akanda-Coronel, who had been off Twitter for three weeks, knew it wouldn’t last. His self-banishment lasted less than a month.
Lawton went more than 30 days, but he also is back on Twitter.
Courtney Anderson, a junior guard on the women’s basketball team, said she has reduced her social media use, including deleting Facebook from her cell phone.
“I just find myself using a lot of idle time using it where I could do things that are more productive,” she said.
Anderson also has gone through periods during which she wouldn’t exchange text messages with friends and family.
“I feel like communication has been lost throughout the whole [social media] thing,” she added. “People don’t know how to speak to each other any more.”
Most coaches’ use limited
While social media has developed into a fast, free way for the UMaine athletic department to publicize scores, highlights, awards and upcoming games for its teams, the phenomenon has been slower to catch on among UMaine head coaches.
Barron is among the exceptions, but even his Twitter and Facebook use are relatively limited.
Some of the older-generation head coaches, including Trimper, Cosgrove, men’s hockey mentor Red Gendron, and men’s basketball coach Ted Woodward, are not active on social networks.
Both Trimper and Cosgrove said time, rather than technological challenges, is what has kept them from getting involved.
“I’m not that old-school, I just don’t have the time to invest sitting there typing on the cell phone or on the computer when I could have a meeting and get things done,” Trimper offered.
Several assistant coaches are much more visible on social media, including men’s basketball associate head coach Doug Leichner. He sometimes includes Tweets in foreign languages, especially when on the recruiting trail in Europe.
Social media can be used by coaches in the recruitment of prospective student-athletes, but their use is restricted by the NCAA, as is the case with phone contacts, emails and text messages.
Barron said he and his staff try to “follow” players they are recruiting on Twitter in an effort to get a better handle on their personalities and insights.
“I’ll be honest, there are a lot of kids in the recruiting [world] who don’t look at social media as the way they want to be contacted,” Barron said. “For them, social media is them and their friends.
“If you’re too intrusive, you’re going to pay a price in recruiting,” he added.