EWU’s athletic programs are the doorstep to the university for many individuals in the Cheney and greater Spokane community.
Through social media websites, like Facebook and Twitter, a picture of an athlete with alcohol in hand or a derogatory comment towards a coach or teammate can create a media firestorm.
Last December, Lehigh University suspended a football player from a postseason playoff game for retweeting a message that included a racial slur against members of the Towson University football program.
Last March, the NCAA placed North Carolina University’s football program on three years probation and banned it from the 2012 postseason after an investigation based on tweets players had made.
According to EWU associate athletic director Pamela Parks, “The social media policy here is any indiscretion will be dealt with on a case by case basis, and that could be from a … slap on the wrist, to a suspension, to removal of scholarship, to removal from team, to removal from school.”
Each Eastern athletic program has its own set of rules in addition to the departments. Every program has a coach designated to periodically browse through Facebook pages and Tweets.
“If they find something they think is above and beyond what they think is acceptable, then they’ll bring it forward to us,” Parks said.
The EWU women’s soccer team coach George Hageage said he has boiled his team’s rule down to one overarching mandate.
“If you do anything or say anything that’s going to be a distraction or is ethically or morally not correct, then you can’t be a part of this team,” said Hageage. “We’re trying to limit distractions.”
Hageage equated looking online at social media sites to a random drug test. One week, he may look twice, or he may not look for a couple weeks.
Parks and the athletic department meet with the soccer team and all other athletic programs to educate the players and coaches.
“Everybody has a camera now. Everybody has a video. Everybody has a microphone,” said Parks. “So we speak about it and address it specifically, and then we let them know that once it’s out in the virtual world there’s really nowhere you can clean it off or nowhere you can truly lock out people.”
At some universities the athletic department’s social media policies call for student-athletes to leave otherwise-private information open to all coaches or staff, meaning that the player would have to “friend” a coach or compliance officer.
At this time, Parks said Eastern’s athletic department has no policy.
“I don’t think we’re doing them a service to monitor and control everything that they do until they’re out of here, then let them go into the real world of a professional,” said Parks. “We need to be helping them and educating them while they’re here.”
Head men’s track coach Stan Kerr said he wants his student-athletes to get upset and experience a full range of emotions, not feeling inhibited about expressing them. But it is a question of how and when.
“That’s not as easy as it sounds,” said Kerr. “You have to be pretty vigilant with [expressing emotions].”
Some universities, like Boise State, Mississippi State and South Carolina, have banned or limited the use of social media for athletes, but Kerr is hesitant to go that far.
“I hope I would do the preventative work where we wouldn’t have to cross that road,” said Kerr. “I don’t want to be the Twitter police. I don’t want to be the Facebook police.”
Lauren Jacobsen, a midfielder on the women’s soccer team, said it was a weird transition from high school, where everyone could say, post or do what they wanted without fear of repercussion.
“We’re told at the beginning of the season, ‘You need to be respectful, you represent the university,’” said Jacobsen. “You obviously aren’t allowed to say certain things about your coaches, your players, administration, stuff like that. I think everyone has kind of learned there’s things you post and things you don’t post.”
What exactly is an appropriate or inappropriate post or tweet can be difficult to distinguish.
“We go into it knowing that we can’t post certain things,” said Jacobsen. “… I think that there’s definitely a gray area of whether or not we know what we can say or what will happen with what we say.”
Jacobsen said every athlete is aware that losing some social media freedom is the cost of playing for Eastern.
“I would much rather be an athlete and just not have to post certain things on Facebook,” said Jacobsen. “I wouldn’t ever not be an athlete just so I could post stuff on Facebook.”