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Athletes Beware: Facebook Ahead

BY NATE SANDALS

Published September 14, 2006

Free cars from boosters, steroids and academic fraud - now some say student athletes can add Facebook.com to that list of vices.

For the first time, the athletic department are having all varsity athletes sign a "Student-Athlete Conduct Policy Regarding Involvement in Internet-Based Social Networking Communities."

The policy states that any online behavior failing to "reflect the high standards of honor and dignity that characterize participation in competitive sports at the University of Michigan" could result in punishment up to and including "reduction or non-renewal of any athletic scholarships."

The policy went into effect August 1.

The University's Facebook awareness policies don't end there.

A crowd of more than 900 gathered at Crisler Arena last week to learn the truth about the popular networking site.

The majority of them were Michigan varsity athletes and coaches.

In an event organized by the Athletic Department, Pablo Malavenda, associate dean of students at Purdue University - who is considered by many to be the foremost expert on online social networking - gave a 90-minute presentation called "Welcome to Facebook: Enter at Your Own Risk."

During his talk, Malavenda highlighted the advantages and downsides of being part of online social networks like Facebook and Myspace.com. The presentation included a number of examples of inappropriate Facebook profiles, including references to or pictures of alcohol, drugs and nudity.

Malavenda stressed that there is nothing private about Facebook, a site whose membership is nearing the 10-million mark. As of May, the University of Michigan network alone had 43,886 members, large enough to rank sixth nationwide.

Malavenda never suggested that student athletes shouldn't be on Facebook, but he did stress that because of their high profile on campus, they "be more concerned with people watching."

Malavenda urged them to monitor their groups and tagged photos.

In a well-publicized series of events last summer, the website badjocks.com obtained photographs of athletic teams engaged in hazing activities from websites including Facebook. The uproar resulted in multiple team suspensions, most notably that of the Northwestern University women's soccer team.

When Malavenda asked the students in attendance - the Athletic Department also invited leaders of campus groups to the presentation - if they were on Facebook, nearly all raised their hands.

When coaches and administrators were asked the same question, only a few admitted to being members.

In his closing remarks, Malavenda urged student athletes to use common sense in their online activities.

"You know that you're not anonymous on Facebook," Malavenda said. "Ask yourself: Would you be able to explain your profile to your grandmother?"

While introducing Malavenda, Assistant Athletic Director Mike Stevenson said the presentation was meant to be educational for both student athletes and coaches - not a reaction to a specific incident.

Stevenson stressed that the welfare of student athletes was the highest priority and the driving force behind bringing Malavenda to speak.

"I think it is urgent," Stevenson said. "Students were putting up personal information about themselves, female student athletes particularly, which was making them very vulnerable."

Last February, two members of the women's swimming and diving team received harassing e-mail messages. The e-mails' author told them he wanted a wife to take back to his home country with him, to convert her to Islam and have many children.

In the months following those events, each team had a meeting with its coaches to talk about guidelines regarding Facebook activity.

Unlike other athletic departments around the country - Chicago's Loyola University, for one - that have banned athletes from being on sites like Facebook, the University of Michigan has not.

Last week's presentation was mandatory for all student athletes, coaches and administrators who oversee athletic programs. Despite its mandatory attendance, many members of the football team were absent.

Malavenda's presentation was not the first time the athletic department has gathered all the athletes and coaches to educate them on important issues.

Past presentations have included lectures on gambling, hazing and substance abuse.

While the presentation was limited to only student athletes and campus leaders, Associate Athletic Director Shari Acho thinks the lessons from Malavenda's speech could benefit the entire University.

"We wanted Pablo to speak to the whole University," Acho said. "But he was only able to come for one evening."

Basketball player Brent Petway - whose Facebook profile got him in trouble last year when Michigan State fans got ahold of his AIM screen name - said he learned a lot of important information from the presentation.

"It was good to hear the dos and don'ts of Facebook," Petway said. "You really just have to be smart about it. I know a lot more than I used to. I really did learn the hard way."

Now on his Facebook profile, where his screen name used to be, Petway has a message directed at the Michigan State fans that pestered him last year: "I got too many hate ims from crazy state fans . get a hobby . do something with your lives."

Under a pseudonym, Petway also has a MySpace page featuring original music, but he takes care that the music on the site is appropriate.

Even though their Facebook profiles may be safe, many athletes still have their e-mail addresses available to the public through a simple search on the University's online directory at directory.umich.edu.


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