Social media is a dominate force at UNDGRAND FORKS — At the beginning of every school year, Jayson Hajdu — University of North Dakota’s assistant athletic director for media relations — sits down with student-athletes to teach them how to handle the media.
By: Tom Miller, The Dickinson Press
GRAND FORKS — At the beginning of every school year, Jayson Hajdu — University of North Dakota’s assistant athletic director for media relations — sits down with student-athletes to teach them how to handle the media.
Only a few years ago, that talk centered solely on dealing with the traditional media — newspaper writers, television reporters and radio personalities.
Now, Hajdu estimates he spends 90 percent of his talk educating athletes on social media and 10 percent on traditional media.
That extra attention begins to tell of the negative consequences that can be caused by Twitter and Facebook, as college students now have the opportunity to express opinions worldwide from the comfort of a cellphone.
“I don’t think some kids realize the reach of what they say on Twitter,” Hadju said. “They think they’re in little old Grand Forks in little old North Dakota. When the camera or the recorder is in front of them, there’s a visible reminder of the reach.”
In 2008, Twitter had about 6 million users and Facebook 100 million. Today, the figure is 140 million for Twitter and 900 million on Facebook. UND estimates that more than half of its roughly 400 student-athletes are on Twitter and nearly all of them are on Facebook.
What can go wrong…
During the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last season, Lehigh University got a first-hand look at the repercussions of Twitter use gone awry.
The NCAA suspended Lehigh All-America wide receiver Ryan Spadola for an FCS quarterfinal game against North Dakota State because Spadola retweeted a racial slur from one of his friends about Towson University’s football team that Lehigh had played the previous week.
At UND, Hajdu said monitoring student-athletes on social media is an all-hands-on-deck approach.
“All of my staff pretty much has Tweetdeck going all day,” Hajdu said of an application used to view Twitter. “We try to have each of the SIDs (Sports Information Directors) monitor their respective sports.
“It’s impossible to follow all 400 of our athletes. If we see a violation, we contact the student-athlete and ask them to remove the tweet. Depending on the severity, we might send them a reminder of our code of conduct.”
Some major athletic departments have hired companies to monitor the social media use of their athletes. Pete Thamel of the New York Times recently wrote about a company called Varsity Monitor, which boasts university clients of North Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.
The report states that some schools are paying up to $10,000 for Varsity Monitor to keep an eye on its athletes. Varsity Monitor’s message is “we monitor for actions that could endanger their future career and sponsorship opportunities, as well as damage the brand of their team, league and institution.”
UND hones in on education
UND’s Assistant Athletic Director for Compliance, Kara Helmig, doesn’t foresee her school outsourcing its monitoring. Instead, education is the key.
“In fall meetings, we make up fictitious tweets that would get them in trouble,” Helmig said. “We show them tweets that would make the compliance staff react.
“So far, all of our problems have been pretty ticky-tack.”
But UND officials know it’s an ongoing battle to keep students in line with their use of social media.
“We haven’t had a Twitter crisis,” Hajdu said. “I would be naïve to think we won’t someday. That’s just the odds. But so far, the student-athletes have been fantastic.”
UND women’s basketball coach Travis Brewster is on Twitter. Although the media relations staff and compliance department give presentations to the student-athletes, Brewster said he also delivers a message to his players about the proper use of social media.
“What is out there is out there forever,” Brewster said. “As a coach, you have to be very deliberate in what you’re communicating.”
Changes in fan experience
When it comes to college athletics, some feel the perils of Twitter aren’t relegated to student-athletes and compliance departments.
Frank White, a UND professor who teaches classes on sociology and sports, sees a change in the fan experience caused by the need for constant updates to a smart phone.
“Watching games live now is too slow,” he said. “It’s too long between pitches. It hurts a sport like baseball and in some respect football. Waiting for the 3-2 pitch in baseball use to be exciting.”
But an era of sports fans growing up with immediacy and 24-hour highlight-reel shows has changed that for the younger generation, White said.
“We use to go to sports with a story unfolding before you,” he said. “Now, it’s disjointed. You lose some of the romance.”
White said he can see this phenomenon in a similar way in the classes he teaches.
“They’re texting and on Twitter,” White said. “I have a buildup in my lectures that leads to a teachable moment. Now, kids just write down my definition. They’re missing it.”
White sees the parallel in the young sports fan.
“People won’t have the same memories as you and I,” he said. “…they were somewhere else mentally.”