Socially Awkward: Social Media Can Cause Headaches

  • Dartmouth College point guard Nicola Zimmer. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

    Dartmouth College point guard Nicola Zimmer. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

  • Dartmouth College point guard Nicola Zimmer. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

Hanover — Last summer, Dartmouth College’s women’s basketball players and coaches kept in contact — partially through a private Facebook page. Players used it to share not only what they were doing during the break, but to inspire each other with updates on their conditioning workouts in far-flung locales.

“It was our accountability tool,” said first-year coach Belle Koclanes. “When (co-captain) Nicola (Zimmer) is in Cuba and she uploads a video of herself working out in some alley, it makes you want to get up off the couch and get your workout in, too.”

At the same time, however, another Dartmouth athlete, one of the most recognizable on campus, used the site Twitter.com to send out a short, public message that would have presumably horrified his mother. In it, he detailed in graphic and obscene fashion, the way he wants women to act in his presence.

Shortly thereafter, another Dartmouth athlete, just months from receiving a national honor for his play, tweeted that “People need to quit attacking Dartmouth. If you don’t like a good vomelet and some public urination, you can get out.”

The message was in reference to 2012 hazing allegations regarding the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and an incident in late July of this year during which a woman told Hanover police she was urinated upon from a second-floor balcony by an Alpha Delta fraternity member.

There are roughly 1,000 varsity athletes on Dartmouth’s campus. They range mostly in age from 18 to 22 and are part of a generation that has little memory of a time before Facebook, let alone before smart phones became ubiquitous.

“Just walk across the Green and see how many kids aren’t on a phone or texting,” said Athletic Director Harry Sheehy, himself a smart phone user. “It’s amazing.”

But it’s not everyday Internet use that concerns Sheehy and his athletic department coworkers, it’s flare-ups, such as when Dartmouth placed Beta Alpha Omega, a fraternity loaded with Big Green athletes, on “immediate and temporary suspension” last month. The move was prompted when college administrators reviewed internal fraternity emails that were obtained and publicized by the news and gossip website Gawker.

Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson said at the time that the college suspected Beta members participated in hazing and provided alcohol to minors, as well as engaging in behavior that threatened physical harm. The fraternity must cease all activities while suspended, including chapter meetings social events and new member events.

Frank Moran, Hanover’s Interim Police Chief, said his department is not investigating the matter.

Gawker said it discovered the fraternity’s message board on a public website that allows users to create group forums and came upon the messages while “researching Beta’s involvement in a sexual assault.”

Moran said his department’s investigation of that incident was put on hold because the victim didn’t want to be involved in the legal process. Dartmouth officials said the suspect — who told the victim he was not a student at the college — might have attended a Beta party the night the assault occurred.

One of the documents Gawker uploaded along with its story about Beta was a spreadsheet of information on the fraternity’s current, 32-man pledge class. It lists not only information such as their “celebrity crush” and “favorite sorority” but also their “favorite category of pornography.”

Twenty-eight of the pledges on the spreadsheet are either varsity or club athletes. Among the former, there are four basketball players, two baseball players, six football competitors, two track athletes and a swimmer, a squash player and a rower. More than a dozen former or current varsity and club athletes are also identified in the various emails as Beta members at the time of the file’s creation on Sept. 28.

The Gawker message archive shows one of Dartmouth’s most highly decorated and current sports stars as the author of an email which includes the sentence, “It goes without saying that this email should not ever be printed out” and goes on to detail procedures for “sink night,” a part of the pledge class’ initiation. Included are directions to blindfold the newcomers and how the author and two other members would scream at them once they’re led into the fraternity basement.

“ALL BLINDS MUST BE DRAWN. NO WINDOWS OPEN - DON’T WANT TO BE HEARD YELLING” reads part of a later email, its creator unknown. Another message reads, “Never force a pledge to drink. Ask them if they’re drinking. If yes — drink when need be. If not, make someone else drink for them.”

Also uncovered by Gawker was an email sent by a Beta brother and rugby player. It praised his fellow members for “slamming hoes,” but chastised them for not continuing a weekly fight club staged among fraternity members. Another email degraded a 2013 Dartmouth graduate and former lacrosse player as having “lost his manhood” and said he was “no longer fit to be a brother.” It instructed members to henceforth call him “Sister Steve.”

Sheehy said the athletic department will wait to see how the college’s overall disciplinary system handles the student-athletes involved before deciding if and how to sanction them itself. But he made it clear he’s unhappy and puzzled by the behavior.

“It was more disappointment than anger, because we really think we’re making inroads, and that a large group of our (team) leaders are buying into what we’re trying to do,” Sheehy said, referring to a leadership initiative he started several years ago. “Anything that reflects poorly on the program that I and so many other people are working so hard to make succeed is a problem. You have to be embarrassed by the lack of intellect displayed in that (Beta email) string.”

Another piece of online content causing consternation in Alumni Gym was a campus-wide email sent on Oct. 26 from the email address dartmouthwomenssoccer13@gmail.com. In regards to that night’s game against visiting Columbia, it encouraged fans to “come drunk. Be rowdy and heckle some Lions … we putting on a clinic (sic).”

Sheehy said a women’s soccer player was discovered to have sent the email and that the matter was “taken care of.”

In September, while football coach Buddy Teevens would not publicly discuss the health and game readiness of receiver Kirby Schoenthaler in any significant detail, a photo emerged on the blog of Schoenthaler and teammate Bo Patterson. It showed the former sitting in a wheelchair being pushed out of a local hospital by the latter. Further photos and texts indicated Schoenthaler had undergone surgery for appendicitis and would therefore miss several upcoming games.

“We might have to be more careful of the injury side of it,” Patterson said of the blog, which mostly features amusing and goofy photos of the pair and their friends studying, sleeping and moving around campus. “There’s a fine line, because anytime you put something on the Internet, it’s crazy how long and how widely it circulates.”

The overwhelming majority of Dartmouth athletes’ social media posts aren’t controversial or in poor taste. But there are still those who insist on describing their bowel movements or posting dozens of photos of themselves in various states of inebriation. Earlier this month, one Big Green football player used Twitter to call Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin “soft.” Martin’s representatives have described him as being physically and verbally bullied by teammates, including fellow lineman Richie Incognito, leading to Martin’s leaving the squad and the suspension of Incognito.

“I’ve had student-athletes sit in front of me and for the life of them, they don’t understand what’s wrong with posting inappropriate things online,” Sheehy said. “You try to explain, and they look at you like you’re from Mars. These are good, smart kids, but we are just from different worlds.”

College athletic departments and teams scramble every year to deal with a fresh crop of athletes and a new round of problems caused by social media. Some, such as Old Dominion University football coach Bobby Wilder, respond broadly, banning their players from Twitter. ODU requires this year-round, but other squads such Florida State, Clemson, South Carolina and Boise State football and Louisville men’s basketball have that rule in place just during the season.

“I make it very clear to (recruits) that if you’re in love with Twitter, go somewhere else,” Wilder told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. The Monarchs’ director of football operations monitors the players’ Facebook pages.

The University of North Carolina football team violated NCAA rules, including failing to monitor its players’ social media activity, in 2010. It was punished last year with the loss of 15 scholarships and a one-year bowl ban. The investigation was touched off when a Tar Heels player disclosed illegal benefits in a social media post about a trip to Miami. Now, the school’s athletic teams each have a coach or staff member who monitors those put up by their players and their accounts must be registered with the department’s NCAA compliance office.

Athletes at the University of Oklahoma must make a coach or staff member their “friend” on Facebook, therefore allowing even non-public posts to be monitored. At the University of Michigan, players must acknowledge in writing that they have read the athletic department’s social media policy.

Earlier this year, Ohio State’s athletic department spent $365,500 for software that helps monitor social media usage by Buckeyes coaches and players. Other schools spend tens of thousands of dollars annually to have outside companies do the same thing. But observers and lawmakers’ take on what’s ethical and legal in this area vary widely.

Last year, New Jersey, California, Michigan and Delaware enacted laws prohibiting any public or private institution of higher learning from requiring students to provide passwords, user names or any access to personal accounts accessed by an electronic communications device.

Schools also may not ask students if they have an account or profile on a social media network or bar them from participation because they refused to disclose such information. A Minnesota district court held that public schools that do such things are violating their students’ First and Fourth Amendment rights. Bobby Wilder, take note.

Bradley S. Shear, a Maryland lawyer who specializes in sports law and social media, told the New York Times last year that schools are venturing into uncertain territory when it comes to students and social media, and that some companies monitoring them may encounter problems down the road.

“These companies are selling snake oil that contains a major legal liability time bomb,” Shear told the newspaper. “To me, there’s no difference in having to Facebook-friend a coach than turning over user name and password.”

Said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick in the same article: “If the university is going to screen all students or all prospective students or everyone that’s applied, we’ll engage in that with the university. I can’t foresee a time where they would.”

Even after one online incident and its consequences, the message from coaches and administrators doesn’t always sink in. One of Dartmouth’s current football players, a multi-year starter and All-Ivy performer, got in hot water with Teevens several years back, before he had even enrolled at the college. A Valley News reporter made the coach aware of a “kill all illegals” post on the player’s MySpace page during his senior year of high school. The post was in reference to illegal immigrants and came to light during the player’s recruitment by Dartmouth.

After overcoming that hurdle and gaining admittance, the same player later posted a Facebook photo of himself drinking beer in a hot tub. He was underage at the time.

“The (social media) policy really comes down to ‘Don’t be an idiot,’ ” Teevens said, adding that team staffers view player’s public posts on occasion. “If your mom wouldn’t want to see it up there, don’t put it up there. We tell them that the major corporations around the world have people who research Facebook, so if you put something foolish up there, it may cost you a job.”

The Dartmouth athlete who typed the Beta “sink night” procedures email hasn’t exactly been apologetic or careful in the wake of his fraternity’s troubles and meetings with his coach and athletic department officials. Last month he accepted a Valley News reporter’s subscription request to his personal Twitter account, revealing tweets in which the athlete mocked an article critical of Beta and used the hashtag #freebeta on several other occasions.

Koclanes, the women’s basketball coach, is only 33 and perhaps more attuned to college students’ ways of life than some of her older peers at Dartmouth. Still, she has little tolerance for online missteps by her players and, like every Big Green bench boss, is required by the athletic department to discuss such potential pitfalls with her team.

“It’s part of our kids’ generation and how they communicate,” Koclanes said. “But our core values are positive attitude, respect and preparation. As long as what you’re saying ties in to those three things, we’re fine. If it doesn’t, don’t you dare put it up there, because that’s not us.”

Zimmer, one of Koclanes’ co-captains, said that social media “is part of larger contestations we have about how we’re expected to represent ourselves, whether it’s on Twitter or Instagram or just walking home from practice. We all have cameras in our phones and we’re taking stupid pictures of everything, so it’s definitely a conversation that needs to be had.”

That’s good news for Sheehy, who lives in mild dread of a controversy such as the one that struck Columbia athletics last spring. A football player was accused of assault and when the story broke, the Lion athletic communications department’s habit of publicizing athletes’ Twitter addresses backfired badly. When Columbia’s student radio station began looking at those handles and the statements associated with them, it revealed that the accused player and some teammates had sent out disparaging comments about people of various sexual orientations, races and religions.

“It’s like a tsunami that comes at you when these things hit,” Sheehy said. “I don’t know what the analogous mistakes are that I made at 18 or 19, but they didn’t snowball like this. The pace of the world has changed because of social media.

“We’re in uncharted territory here and I don’t think anybody knows what to do with this stuff. It frightens us to death.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.