Manti Te’o, Social Media and Student-Athletes. What now?

Much has been made of the Manti Te’o situation. With him being the face of Notre Dame football this season, that is to be expected. I wanted to wait until we heard his side, which we now have, before choosing to write about it, and what it means for student-athletes on social media, and how universities/athletic departments approach it.

This post won’t be about whether or not his story is believable. It won’t be a story judging his character.

For those unfamiliar, (former) Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o was the apparent victim of an internet hoax referred to as Catfishing – when a person pretends they are someone they are not, usually on social media, in order to deceive someone. Most of you will remember his trying season, when in the span of a few hours he lost his Grandmother and girlfriend. It was an incredible narrative. Now it turns out that his girlfriend, who he “met” online, was in fact not real. Never existed. Fittingly, news of the story as I was sitting on a panel at theNCAA Convention, discussing student-athletes and social media.

Needless to say, it has been a stressful week for Te’o and the Notre Dame administration. For student-athletes and administrators, there are a few takeaways from this situation.

  1. Acknowledge reality. This is not an isolated incident. Michael Roth, a former South Carolina baseball player, has written a blog post about his experience in a Catfish hoax, as well as a similar experiencehappening to a teammate. Here is another story involving student-athletes at the University of Washington. NFL players have now come forward acknowledging they were duped by a woman with a fake online identity. Social media is about connecting. Connecting for business, common interest, being a part of the same city, any number of reasons. Sometimes, this can turn into a romantic relationship. In the digital world we live in, it’s not abnormal. What once happened on AOL Instant Messenger or in chat rooms, now takes place on Twitter and Facebook. We cannot ignore reality.
  2. It’s about trust. As Kathleen Hessert points out, it’s about trust. Who can/should we trust online? I have a lot of “Twitter friends”. People that I talk with often, online. Some are business owners, some work in corporate America, some are pastors, musicians, etc. Some are athletic directors/administrators. Some of these relationships have resulted in business – which, of course, takes the relationship from online to the “real” world. Like I said, social media is about connecting. Student-athletes talking to strangers online is fine. It’s about making wise decisions in how far you take those discussions. In being careful with who they trust to be more than just someone they casually interact with online.
  3. Don’t overreact. Administrators shouldn’t use this as some sort of validation that banning their players from social media is the right course of action. It isn’t. This is not Twitter’s fault. It’s not the fault of Facebook, where the relationship began. This type of activity can happen in any number of places online. You can’t expect your student-athletes to live in some sort of bubble.
  4. Educate. At the end of the day, we have to have a commitment to education. As Jason Belzer wrote in Forbes this week, this could be a tipping point in regards to the NCAA and social media:With the massive public relations crisis that Notre Dame is now facing as precedent, other universities face a simple choice: invest additional resources in training and monitoring student athletes usage of social media or simply tell them they must leave their Twitter and Facebook accounts at the door upon entering campus.On the topic of monitoring, it wouldn’t have prevented this. To suggest otherwise is a stretch. Monitoring is a service we provide, it’s something that I fully believe there is value in. But it would not have prevented this situation. Let’s say, for example, that Te’o tweeted something inappropriate to this girl. An offensive word, something sexual. With our monitoring system, Notre Dame would’ve received notice of that (assuming his account isn’t set to Private). Then what? Are they expected to investigate this girl? Of course not. Sadly, student-athletes say inappropriate sexual things to people on Twitter often. It prompts a conversation with the student-athlete, but not an investigation into the person they are interacting with.

    Athletic departments will have to evaluate how they approach social media education. They must have a renewed dedication to training their student-athletes on how to use social media well. On how to protect themselves online. Because this type of activity isn’t going to go away.  A guy gets a tweet or Facebook message from a stranger. The profile picture shows that it’s an attractive “woman”, and the relationship begins.

Right or wrong, it’s not our place to judge Manti Te’o. The point is that it happens. Adults, teens, students, student-athletes, men, women. Let’s not ignore it. Let’s not laugh about it (there’s a reason that online dating is a $2 billion industry). Let’s not create an atmosphere of shame. Let’s have discussions about it. Serious discussions. The more discussions we have, the more aware our student-athletes will be. The more they can and will hold each other accountable. Discussions also raise awareness among staff. They know what questions to ask.

Let’s re-evaluate our approach and renew our commitment to educating our student-athletes about social media use.

Fieldhouse Media is a firm dedicated to helping student-athletes and coaches use social media in a positive, appropriate way through education and monitoring. To find out more about us or to join the over 25 schools utilizing our services for their athletic department, contact us today.