Social media in sports: Athletic officials testing waters of technology

LIBERTY TWP. — Lebanon High School wide receiver Chase Cochran has received thousands of messages on Facebook.

The one that stands out was a scholarship offer from Ohio University in the spring of 2009.

“Ohio U. hooked me up with their Facebook page when they first started recruiting me, and they decided they wanted to offer me a scholarship during a no-call period,” Cochran said. “So, they sent me a message on Facebook that they wanted to offer me a scholarship.”

Using Facebook to inform athletes of scholarship offers is not an unusual practice, according to Ohio Bobcat assistant coach Kevin Lightner, who helped recruit Cochran.

“I think everyone does it now,” Lightner said. “It’s just another way to stay in touch with the athletes, not a lot different than e-mail. We always call the head coach at the high school to inform them of the offer, but during a no-call period with the athlete, it’s another way to inform them of our intentions.”

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Facebook is a social networking website that was created in February 2004 and allows users to create their own profiles and share photos, video and information within the website’s network.

According to Facebook, there are more than 400 million active users worldwide and a study by Compete.com in January of 2009 ranked it as the most used social network by worldwide monthly users.

Since Facebook was originally designed for social interaction among college students, it makes sense that universities are freely using it as a tool, such as in the recruitment of Cochran.

High school students, including athletes are flocking to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

An informal poll of the Lakota East High School track and field team showed that 49 of its 54 members have Facebook accounts.

This proliferation of social media has created a dilemma for some local high school athletic departments.

You can embrace these new trends among students or you can step back and keep them at arms length.

High school athletic departments are now faced with a dilemma with how to approach social networking sites. Some schools have chosen to embrace the technology, while others are keeping them at a distance.

Making connections

Kings High Athletic Director Matt Koenig has taken an active approach to Facebook.

While recognizing the dangers of the unchecked medium, Koenig thinks it can be used in a positive way.

“There’s always a concern that anybody can put up pictures on Facebook of who knows what and we don’t want to be associated with that,” Koenig said. “But, I do think that we can use the social media to overcome the disconnect that our alumni feel with the school after graduation.”

Koenig started a Kings Athletic Alumni Association page on Facebook last summer, posting weekly updates throughout the fall and winter on what was going on with the Knights.

The page has more than 400 members and allows Kings alumni another avenue to keep in contact with each other.

Kings has also started a Kings Athletic Boosters Club site that promotes fundraising events. That site has grown to 150 members since Koenig started it last fall.

“Facebook can be used in a positive manner,” Koenig said. “If the avenue is out there, we need to use it to service our students, parents, alumni and community the best that we can.”

Mason High School coaches could use social networking sites to market their programs. Athletic Director Scott Stemple has given them his blessing, but as far as he knows, nobody is using them.

“The more we promote our programs in a positive fashion, that’s good,” Stemple said. “How they do it and those kinds of things, we’re certainly concerned about that.”

Treading lightly

Mason coaches such as Linda Kirtley (boys tennis), Tony Affatato (girls track) and Brian Castner (football, softball) admitted that they don’t know enough about those social networks.

Rather, several teams, such as boys tennis and softball, have their own websites for announcements regarding each respective program.

“I’ve heard nothing but bad things about Facebook,” said Castner, who just completed his final season as softball coach, “other than getting to know old friends and keeping in touch with alumni. I’m not a big Facebook fan.”

Castner believes society has created an opportunity for people to remain anonymous and post on the Internet whatever they want on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Two years ago, a former player openly criticized the softball program on Facebook as the Comets advanced to the Final Four.

Learning new tricks

Lakota West football coach Larry Cox has his own Facebook account, and one reason he has it is to keep tabs on his current and former players.

“I’m not an old enough coach to say, ‘Heck with it,’ and move on,” Cox said. “I’m still young enough where I can teach myself how to do this stuff.”

Cox constantly reminds his players of who they are while they’re on Facebook — that they are representing not only themselves, but their school, program and family.

“When the kids know the coach is watching, guess what? They make smarter decisions,” Cox said. “Being on Facebook is the same as being out in public. It’s just the electronic version of it. If the right people want to find you, they’ll find you. If the wrong people want to find you, they’ll find you.”

Cox also has his own Twitter account (CoachLarryCox), which is where he announced last month that offensive lineman Ryan Kelly was offered by Michigan and Alabama.

Twitter — another form of social networking — was created in 2006 and has grown to more than 100 million users worldwide, Twitter revealed in April of this year.

Known as tweets, users can send text-based messages up to 140 characters to the author’s followers.

Twitter serves the same purpose as blast voicemails, e-mails and text messages to relay information — such as cancellations or time changes to athletic events — which Lakota athletic officials have instead opted to utilize.

Lakota school board President Joan Powell said that there is no policy regarding social networking, and to this date, the school board has never been asked to consider one.

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