Kent State University has elected to ban its student athletes from placing profiles on Facebook.com. Reasons given range from concern over the safety of the athletes, who can be easily stalked using the personal information often found on Facebook profiles, to concern over the image of the university, given some of the info students choose to share in what amounts to a very public forum.
Free speech issues abound, of course, but it’s hard to blame any school for being worried about its image if its most public representatives might be on display engaging in drug use, underage drinking, sex, or hazing. College athletic programs being what they are, many schools depend on the revenue generated by sports programs as a significant source of funding. There are also secondary benefits that come with the notoriety of a good athletic program, including being perceived as a desirable school by prospective students and potentially higher contributions from pleased alumni. Although few people probably expect any school to have a squeaky-clean student base, scandal does no one any good, and online chronicles of wild activity can alter public perception from "good school" to "party school" to "I’m not sending my kid there." With sites such as BadJocks.com trolling the ‘Net for outrageous acts, a few minor incidents can begin to shift a college’s image very quickly.
Kent State officials have also expressed concern over the personal information posted by student athletes. That data has been used by both sports agents and fans to contact students inappropriately.
Although there have been several cases in which Kent State students have gone public with activities the university would rather they kept private or avoided altogether, the school has so far been spared any real trouble from profiles on Facebook. Other schools have not been so lucky, as in the case with North Carolina’s Elon University, where photos of baseball players at a party were displayed on Facebook. It wasn’t so much the party that got them in trouble, but the fact that the students were displayed drinking and wearing women’s underwear—probably not the public image a high-grade private university affiliated with the United Church of Christ is looking to project.
While asking college athletes to agree to a code of conduct is pretty standard practice, banning them outright from using a particular web site is seen by many as a fairly draconian reaction to the problem. For one thing, there is the question of just how much control a school should be allowed to exercise over an activity that could very well be benign most of the time. For another, banning a particular web site probably has little effect when numerous online outlets—ranging from other social sites like MySpace and Friendster to blogs and more traditional web pages—exist upon which students can post personal information.
Certainly, the schools have a right and a reason to be concerned. With students from such well-known universities as Northwestern and Penn State getting into trouble by documenting their activity on the web, and even the police beginning to take an interest, the problem is more than theoretical. On one level, Kent State could be applauded for having the foresight to prevent an issue from ever arising. However, outright bans are probably less likely to produce the desired effect than simply educating the students about what is expected of them and potential issues they may face. Education, after all, is what going to college is all about, isn’t it?