Web shows collegians up close and too personal

March 12, 2006|By RICK MAESE

This probably isn't the photo album the Maryland athletic department wants you to see, but let's crack it open anyway:

There's an underage swimmer building a pyramid of empty beer cans.

And an underage basketball player drinking from a shot glass.

We have a picture of a football player holding a gun in one hand with another draped over his shoulder.

There's a photo of an underage gymnast drinking from a Corona bottle.

And there's another swimmer drinking from two beer cans at the same time.

It's one of the biggest Internet trends during the past couple of years: the publication of compromising photographs featuring athletes and coaches. Only the pictures I found didn't victimize any unsuspecting athlete. These were photos that were actually placed on the Internet by the athletes themselves.

I first mentioned the Facebook Web site to Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow five weeks ago. The next day, she logged on to see for herself what the Facebook was all about.

"Whoa," she said. "Some of our student-athletes are using some really bad judgment."

The Facebook is an online community where college students create personal profiles and network with their friends and classmates. It was founded just two years ago and has already transcended trend and become an addiction of sorts for college students across the country. It boasts more than 6 million users at more than 2,100 universities and colleges.

It is available only to people with an e-mail address ending in .edu, and some of its most celebrated users are college athletes. The athlete profiles are similar to those of the general population, often including personal information - birth dates, cell phone numbers, e-mail addresses - and intimate photographs.

Yow and I were struck by the same thing: Young students sharing too much personal information and posting images that they probably wouldn't e-mail home to mom and dad.

It's a slideshow of beer bongs and keg stands. Red plastic cups, drinking games and flipping the bird - a Belushi-inspired slice of college life immortalized countless times on the Facebook.

I went through more than 100 profiles of Terps athletes. An underage volleyball player taking in some Beer Pong. An underage swimmer wearing an empty beer box on his head. A football player flipping off the camera. Every few clicks, it was a different version of the same theme. The female soccer player was drinking. The track athlete was drinking. The football player was drinking. You get the idea.

One underage wrestler was pictured half-naked, drinking from a funnel. He listed his school clubs as "wrestling" and "alcohol." His interests included "getting [messed] up" and streaking.

"I knew right away that [the Facebook] wasn't something to mull over for too long," Yow said.

Facebook administrators aren't in the business of policing their profiles for underage drinking. In fact, it seems almost like a badge of honor to provide college students the freedom to post whatever they want.

"What we're concerned about is providing a Web site for students that's a reflection of everyday student life," Facebook spokesman Chris Hughes said. "If that means at times they're engaging in behavior that some people don't like, well that's an issue that can be talked about."

Yow began talking to her administrative staff and then Maryland coaches. Within a short period of time, coaches were given a directive to talk with their athletes and highlight the concerns: sexual predators on the Internet, possible identity theft, underage drinking and potential employers running across these profiles.

"It's a relatively new phenomenon," said Michael Lipitz, Maryland's senior athletic director, who has been studying the Facebook the past several weeks. "There's really been nothing like this in recent years that I can recall."

Lipitz correctly notes that the compromising photos aren't limited to athletes and certainly aren't limited to Maryland.

"So many of the students seem to think that what they put up there is private," Lipitz said. "They need to be aware that a lot of people can find this stuff. We're not prohibiting anyone from anything. We're just calling to their attention that there are concerns and we're most worried about their safety."

The Maryland athletic department moved quickly. Just a little more than a month since I first talked with Yow, her department has already amended its rules. The athletes' code of conduct has abandoned vague language that lumped together varying infractions. It now includes a set of standardized rules that specifically addresses underage drinking.

At a minimum, punishment starts with a warning and escalates to the possible loss of scholarship. The rules were put before the athlete council and then before Maryland's coaches. They go into effect this month, and already some students have taken notice.

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