In the simplest terms, social media has become both a blessing and a curse.
When it comes to high school athletics, social media has become something that can make or break an athlete’s future.
It can be a tremendous tool to getting the athlete’s success story out there, drawing attention from potential college coaches.
On the other hand, something an athlete posts as early as, say, when he or she is 12 years old, can be the death knell for their college career.
The worst part? They may not even know what they are doing wrong.
What the student thinks is funny and harmless at the age of 12 can be something that, six years later, may come back and keep the athlete from getting a scholarship.
“Colleges have people that their only job is to track social media,” said Dublin boys’ basketball coach Tom Costello. “And it goes further. How many times are you seeing professional athletes having to apologize for something they posted when they were 13 or 14?”
Ryan Partridge is a former standout football player at Amador Valley. He later coached Liberty High to a state title before moving to the college ranks.
He was the Coordinator of Scouting and Recruiting at the University of Arizona before moving to his current spot as Receivers' Coach at the University of Massachusetts.
Partridge confirms what local coaches are saying.
“I see the players' Twitter as a players' profile,” said Partridge. “Coaches look at Twitter all day. It is a main way to start the recruitment of a kid. If I hear a kid is good, I search for him on Twitter and follow him. Not necessarily go straight to calling him.”
And should kids be wary of what they post on social media?
“Absolutely,” confirmed Partridge.
A recent ugly social media issue between two girls’ East Bay Athletic League powerhouses is bringing this into the spotlight.
After a big win in their opponent’s gym, members of the winning team took to social media, posting a picture in the boys’ bathroom, flipping off the camera. They also made sure the location of the school was marked on the picture.
Here is a case where many players on this team are being recruited by college programs, but something like the one post could end their dream.
Derek Perez is the president of the Foothill Athletic Boosters, as well as a parent that has a senior son – Connor – who is going through the recruiting process for football. Perez is also an assistant for the Foothill girls’ softball team.
As a person who regularly uses social media, he is qualified on several levels to comment on the subject.
“With Conner, we learned from other kids,” said Perez. “The first thing (colleges) look at is your social media - your character.”
It is almost an impossible job for schools to control what their student athletes post, but they still take on the unenviable task.
“We talk with the kids, send out an email and use a group message,” said San Ramon Valley boys’ baseball coach Tony Battilega. “Then we have a parent meeting with parents and address it there as well.”
Every coach, parent and administrator I talked with all referenced trying to set parameters.
“We talk about the positives, as well as the areas that can cause problems,” said Battilega. “A couple of main points we stress are, one, do not highlight yourselves over the team. Two, do not disgrace another program or a player.”
Some programs take overseeing social media as a teaching moment for the team.
“Our captains are responsible for the other nine girls on the team,” said San Ramon Valley girls’ basketball coach John Cristiano. “If someone comes close to or goes out of bounds, the captains resolve it.”
The Wolves go as far as having one of the players fill to role of CPO – Chief Positivity Officer. This year it falls on senior Elyse Wilkerson.
“She reminds the girls all the time to be positive,” said Cristiano. “We are very serious about the girls being role models for the younger girls in the community.”
SRV gives the players a simple formula for social media.
“We tell the players to never post on their individual page anything that would embarrass their parents or grandparents,” said Cristiano.
But the best laid plans are, as mentioned above, almost impossible to control.
“(Social media) is so big that it is real challenging with so many different mediums to monitor regularly,” said Foothill football coach Greg Haubner. “We tell the kids to be smart and not make the school, the program, or yourself look bad. But to be able to watch all of it is not doable.”
When a kid strays from policy, the coaches are usually the first to find out.
“We hear whispers and then we respond,” said Haubner.
Fighting the negatives of social media is something local school administration teams are constantly facing.
Foothill principal Sebastian Bull regularly posts Foothill athletic pictures, always focusing on the positive, even if it is a loss by the Falcons.
“There are some huge positives for kids that want to play at the next level,” said Bull. “That’s the cool side. Then there’s the negative side and it could really affect their future.”
Bull and his staff have “Technology Use” agreements all the students at Foothill sign, in addition to the athletic contracts for the students in sports.
This has not been a bad year at Foothill.
“This year the kids have mostly been responsible,” said Bull. “Some have made some bad decisions and we addressed those with their family. There have been some years where we have spoken with an entire team.”
Kenny Olson is a senior at Foothill and has made the decision to attend Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, to continue his football career. He can remember back when the Foothill coaches initially brought up social media.
“At the end of my sophomore year, I sat down with the coaches and they gave me the rundown on it all,” said Olson of social media. “They said nothing ever deletes on the web. They said that other people may try to mess you up but stay strong and think about what you are doing.”
That includes the people you hang out with regularly.
“With my friend group -- most are athlete, and all are smart about it,” said Olson. “When we are in larger gatherings, we think about it and are always watching what people are doing. But, as for my close friends, I trust all of them.”
Cristiano and his San Ramon Valley staff preach the same to their players.
“It goes to the character of the people you hang around with,” said Cristiano. “We tell the girls to always be aware of where you are and what you are doing.”
This also rings true for Haubner and his staff.
“There are gunslingers out there to record content every chance they get,” said Haubner. “Better judgement is what you hope for, but it doesn’t always happen.”
Has Olson seen classmates make mistakes by posting something they shouldn’t?
“One hundred percent,” said Olson. “I have seen some kids that are athletes doing something and I have thought, 'what are you doing?'”
And the lessons from the coaches was re-enforced at home for Olson and his sister Grayce, a UCLA volleyball commit. Both parents were college athletes.
“My dad told us that we had a target on our backs,” said Olson. “He trusted us, but told us to watch for others.”
Despite all the fears of the negative posts, a site like Twitter is vital for recruiting.
“For sure,” said Olson. “You post highlights and awards. If you get an offer from one school and other coaches will see it and know they have to act as well.”
As is the case in youth and high school athletics, it’s not just the athletes to worry about. The parents can and often get in over their heads when it comes to social media.
“Parents get wrapped up in it as well,” said Haubner. “They get emotional, and it can be embarrassing.”
Foothill has three social media accounts for the Falcons football team. His wife handles the Facebook page, mothers of the parents do the Instagram page, and Haubner himself handles Twitter, promoting the program.
“I make every effort to be positive and represent the program in a positive way,” explained Haubner.
But you can’t control the parents and that’s where it can go south quickly.
Perez, who does a fair share of posts on different platforms and monitors the kids – and parents – has seen it all too often.
“This is an extension of parents thinking they are so important in their kids’ athletic lives,” said Perez. “Some of the posts I have seen are appalling. You can be excited, but do not get over the top.”
Bull and his staff at Foothill have been fortunate this year.
“We really don’t have much say in what parents say,” said Bull. “There is 99 percent that are supportive and don’t go down that road.”
One more troubling aspect of social media is that people are allowed to post without using their name and that’s scary. Spend a few hours scrolling through Twitter and it’s frightening to see some post, almost all taking the cowardly way of hiding behind a made up name or handle.
“(Social media) gives anonymous people a voice and that’s the dangerous part,” said Costello. “There are people hollering at the wind.”
Social media is not going away and if anything, continually gets larger as more platforms come into play. Managing it correctly is now part of the conversation for every school or administrator.
The key? Hopefully the student athletes take all the warnings to heart before making a mistake they will come to regret.