By Lee Tolliver
© May 4, 2013
Scroll through Twitter, and it's not long before a local athlete's tweet raises eyebrows:
"Dnt Seem Likee Nobody (expletive) Wit Mee! Idc (expletive) Yall!" reads a post by a Hampton Roads high school football player.
Some athletes tweet openly about sex, drugs and alcohol.
"Would you want your mother to see that?" Connor Jones, a Great Bridge baseball player, asked.
What about a coach? Or a college recruiter? A potential employer?
"I've seen some pretty questionable things," said Jones, a senior whose Twitter account has more than 800 followers. "I don't think most kids understand that what they say can do a lot of harm."
School administrators are starting to. So are coaches. Some in South Hampton Roads say they are cautioning athletes on the use of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Principals in Virginia Beach have adopted a "social media position statement" in hopes of educating young athletes on the dangers of what they post. It's believed to be one of the first in the country for high schools.
"Competing for the Beach District is a privilege, not a right," the statement reads. Athletes and coaches "are expected to portray themselves, their team, and their high school in a positive manner at all times."
A violation could get an athlete booted from the team or kicked out of school.
"It's a position statement and not policy," said Ocean Lakes athletic director John Williams, the statement's author, "but it gives you some teeth to enforce what's going on in a whole new world of questionable behavior.
"It's nothing that's required of our coaches, but we meet with them and discuss it. We ask them to talk to their kids about it."
Some coaches, even outside the Beach District, are setting their own course to try to prevent inappropriate online behavior.
Princess Anne girls basketball coach Darnell Dozier maintains Twitter and Facebook accounts, but doesn't communicate on them. He's also learning to use Instagram, a photo-sharing social network site.
"I use them to keep an eye on my kids and sometimes on their parents," Dozier said. "You can write things now and think it's gone later. But a college recruiter could see it and could think twice about wanting you on their team.
"Some kids use it and some abuse it. I let them know right from the start that coach will see what you say and he's not going to tolerate some things."
School divisions in Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Suffolk have no specific social media policy unless there is some sort of threat toward the school or an individual.
"We handle things in-school," Indian River boys soccer coach Keith Freeman said. "I personally talk to my boys about this stuff. I tell them I can't control what you do on weekends, but I do control what you do on my pitch. So don't make this an issue."
Freeman said he understands athletes talk trash to each other and they have other issues they like to discuss. But he and other coaches want to make sure their athletes understand where they are saying it.
"I might have written something on the bathroom wall about a teacher," Freeman said with a laugh. "But I didn't sign it or put my picture next to it.
"When you put something online, it's out there for everybody to see and it can't be washed away."
At the heart of the issue is the Constitution's First Amendment and freedom of speech. There is legal precedent supporting a school system's right to police some social media.
Gary Stevens, an athletic administrator at Thornton Academy in Maine, and an expert on social media, said it comes down to how comments or posts online effect school activities.
"Basically schools have the right to regulate speech and conduct, and some schools regularly go to social media to check on students, especially if they are made aware of something inappropriate," Stevens said after speaking to the Virginia Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association in Norfolk in March.
"And if what they are posting disrupts the day-to-day activities and purpose of the school, schools can take action."
State code makes it a felony to electronically threaten to kill or cause bodily harm on school grounds, a school bus, or at a school-sponsored event.
But Ocean Lakes' Williams felt there should be some form of guidance for athletes and coaches.
After consulting with colleagues around the country, Williams authored, and the School Board approved, the Beach District Social Media Position Statement, which maps out how the division will handle inappropriate conduct on social media sites.
More often than not, the conduct in question involves teenagers not thinking before they post, he said.
"The kids are way ahead of us on the technology," Williams said. "But most of them don't understand the ramifications of their actions.
"We're trying to make coaches aware so that they can try to get their kids to understand."
Athletes always have talked trash with opponents, and now the banter has migrated online. Along with sports, they chat about homework, teachers, parents, jobs and love.
Most of it is harmless.
But sometimes it goes too far.
And some athletes have taken their own understanding a step further.
"With athletes, most of the time it's players degrading each other," said Indian River boys soccer captain Kyle Latusa. "People just say stupid stuff and put it out there. I didn't want to be associated with any of it because it could hurt my chances of success in the future.
"So I got rid of my Twitter account."
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