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Student athletes and the Internet

When the words "Duke Lacrosse" were becoming part of America's lexicon last spring, Bob Reno had an idea. What would happen, Reno wondered, if he were to type those words into the search engine of webshots.com?

With rumors circulating in the first days after the incident became public that the party might have been a team initiation ritual, Reno, helped by a frequent visitor to his burgeoning website badjocks.com, began searching for photos from the party.

"If the lacrosse thing had been an initiation-the lapse between the time when the party happened and when people were getting arrested-it would be quite common for students to post those pictures online," Reno said. "I thought I could really break a huge picture online from the stripper incident."

Reno did not find exactly what he was looking for-as far as he could tell, there were no pictures of the March 13 party posted on the Internet. But the effort was not fruitless as Reno discovered "thousands" of inappropriate photos of athletes-many at major universities-posted on webshots.com. The photos included everything from approved team activities, to underage drinking, to serious hazing violations.

In early May, Reno published photos of a "dirty dozen" of university athletic teams that had photos posted on webshots. The first and most notable outing occurred when Reno posted photos of some older players on the Northwestern women's soccer team hazing the squad's freshmen-photos that eventually led to players' suspensions and the head coach's firing.

In response to those incidents-and the larger trend of increased exposure of athletes on social networking websites-university athletic departments are cautioning students to be aware that their behavior in cyberspace is easily accessible to lurkers like Reno. During the past six months, Duke has taken steps to ensure the University's 600-plus student-athletes are representing themselves and the school in a positive manner.

Although no photos of Duke athletes were ever exposed on badjocks.com, the Department of Athletics has advised its athletes about the potential dangers of both inappropriate behavior and the subsequent postings on photo-sharing sites like webshots and social networking sites like facebook.com and myspace.com.

In the fall of 2005, Duke women's lacrosse head coach Kerstin Kimel, after following links on players' Instant Messenger profiles, came across photographs of her student athletes that made her uncomfortable.

"It wasn't anything illegal-just players being college kids," Kimel said. "I wanted our players to understand the Internet is public. Anything they put up there is for public consumption."

"I'm not naive as a coach at all, I have a good handle on what goes on," Kimel continued. "But when I saw some of those pictures about some of those teams and pictures, I couldn't believe it. It was beyond my imagination that people would take pictures like that and post them. What kind of picture are you painting for yourself, whether you're an athlete or not?"

Kimel asked her players to remove photos they thought could embarrass themselves, their team or the University. At first, the team's captains protested, saying they should be allowed to behave as other college students did on the web. They eventually acquiesced but made sure their coach knew they weren't thrilled.

Six months later, the controversy surrounding the men's lacrosse team was spinning out of control. April 5, then-sophomore Ryan McFadyen's now-infamous e-mail was made public, and men's lacrosse head coach Mike Pressler was forced to resign.

It was all of a sudden clear that something was different-athletes' lives, especially ones at Duke, were becoming public and scrutinized more than ever before. And the most accessible way for outsiders to research Duke athletes was on the Internet, where oftentimes pictures of misbehavior were just a few clicks away.

Amid the unnerving events of the previous weeks and the ongoing media storm, Kimel asked her players: "Do you get it now?"

During the hectic final weeks of last spring, Duke's athletic department acted swiftly in addressing potential future issues related to online behavior.

Director of Athletics Joe Alleva met with an assembly of student athletes in Cameron Indoor Stadium in April, reminding the group that their actions-both online and otherwise-reflected on the University.

Junior Michael Videira and his men's soccer teammates-many of whom are friends with members of the men's lacrosse team-understood the advice they were receiving.

"We got together and talked briefly and said we should untag photos," Videira said. "It was just to be careful-there is a target on our backs right now in athletics at Duke."

Since then, the athletic department has taken increased steps in advising its student athletes in all types of behavior. Alleva hired a new Director of Student Athlete Development to oversee seminars on issues such as alcohol use and hazing, and the department updated its student-athlete handbook.

Among the new aspects included in the handbook is a page entitled "Considerations for social networks." The advice given to the student-athletes in the handbook is the same as that which the Office of Student Affairs recommends for all students. Still, members of the athletic department have acknowledged that, given the highly-publicized nature of their domain, athletes are often held to a higher standard.

"Our basic rule is don't do anything to embarrass yourself, your team or the University," said Chris Kennedy, senior associate director of athletics. "The message wasn't don't participate [in social networking sites]. It was just don't do anything to embarrass Duke."

At the same time, another member of the athletic department returned from an ACC meeting, where a representative from another school told a story about a student athlete going on a job interview. That student-athlete was asked in the interview to explain several pictures that the interviewer had obtained from facebook.com.

"That got our attention a little bit," Kennedy said. "We became conscious of things going on, not so much with men's lacrosse, but things going on nationally."

Women's soccer head coach Robbie Church was not close with anybody associated with Northwestern's program, but the photos on badjocks.com still hit home.

"We were aware, talked about it, the players knew about it," Church said. "We told them that the athletic department would be checking web books and facebook and other sites out there. And we wanted to make sure there was nothing on there that would embarrass them or the program."

Church had a tough decision to make. In his time at Duke, the players had developed a tradition in which the freshmen dressed up in "crazy clothes" and distributed flyers to promote an upcoming game. Church said he drew a line between what could be considered hazing, and what should be allowed.

"That's a college fun thing, but things that do physical harm we will not tolerate," he said. "We've focused on behavior across the board. Let's do the right things. Let's not embarrass ourselves or our program."

Like Church, all of Duke's coaches have had discussions with their teams about the potential dangers of misbehaving-and then providing evidence of that online. Men's soccer head coach John Rennie said he discussed internet behavior with his team this year for the first time.

John Danowski, who replaced Mike Pressler as head coach of the men's lacrosse team, said he has warned his teams for years about their behavior reflecting on their institution, even before he left Hofstra for Duke. But he questioned why someone like Reno would spend his time posting pictures of student-athletes on his website.

"You have to feel sorry for a guy like that," Danowski said. "Does he do the same thing for fraternities and sororities and companies? Do they search office Christmas parties?"

Still, Danowski has come to understand the scrutiny under which athletes are viewed.

"You have to be so careful,"

Danowski said. "Especially now, you have to be hyper-vigilant about everything you do. Athletes don't have the same rights as normal students-they have to act daily almost beyond reproach. And if they do make mistakes, hopefully people don't call them out on it. Hopefully the mistakes they make are small and correctable."

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