Social Media: To Fear or Not to Fear

From Facebook to Twitter to personal blogs, social media has had a huge impact on college football. Some schools, like Navy, embrace every opportunity to get exposure while others are closing practices or putting restrictions on what the media can report. One can only assume each college's rules have been enacted for one reason – to help ensure success on the field. But does it make a difference

If former Navy coach Paul Johnson, who used to almost dare his opponents to come watch practices in Annapolis, is now closing them for most of the fall at Georgia Tech, chances are something is to blame. A good place to start looking for a culprit is in the world of social media.

 

"I think the social media has had an impact on how we regulate practice because I do think that if you are in game week mode, you are not just doing the fundamentals," said Georgia Tech Sports Information Director Dean Buchan. "And if somebody is taking wide-angle video of say your kick-off return team or how you defend it…it could be harmful, depending on what they shot."

 

Buchan said that those kinds of small advantages are exactly why some coaches actually spend time at popular web sites of their rivals.

 

"I guarantee you that every coaching staff of every team we play is looking for just that. They are looking for that type of information and there is people on my staff that is looking for theirs," said Buchan.

 

Meanwhile, at Colorado University, its athletic department has thrown down the gauntlet when it comes to credentialing members of the media who are even associated with web sites that do not expose message board posters by name.

 

"We do not credential or grant access to any site that sponsors anonymous message boards or chat; that is irresponsible journalism, and newspaper web sites won't get additional passes if they have anonymous reader comment boxes," said their sports information director, Dave Plati.

 

"The social media piece is hard to control, probably impossible without completely shutting down (practices)," added Plati.

 

According to Plati, part of the reason why Colorado's practices are open to the media is because of the competition around Denver.

 

"We are in a pro market and most of the practices for the four major sports teams are open to the media. We have to compete with that," said Plati.

 

Part of Plati's market competition comes from Colorado Springs, and the U.S. Air Force Academy. Just this summer, the school which Jake Schaller of The Gazette covers, handed out a new media policy that included many more restrictions. One of the new policies limited the amount of access Schaller would have to coaches and players.

 

"(According to the new policy), Tuesdays before practices was the last time you could get anybody until Saturday after practice," said Schaller.  "Another writer and I approached (Head Football) Coach (Troy) Calhoun and told him it was going to be pretty tough for us to cover the team like that. And to his credit he said that players would be available before practice on Wednesday and Thursday."

 

It was a pretty quick reversal to one part of the new policy, but Schaller is still fighting through some other gray areas including what he can and can not report after watching a weekday practice.

 

According to the new policy, he can not write about anything. This has led to Schaller to tap into his inner-creativity.

 

"I can't tell you exactly what happened (at a weekday practice), but I can tell you that if I was a betting man I would say (for example) that this person is ahead in the field goal competition or I would be concerned about this position."

 

Schaller thinks that the two major concerns at Air Force when it comes to practices is the possibility that either injury information or strategy will make it to the message boards.

 

"I think they opened it up to the fans and they want to have fans around…but they don't want fans writing stuff that they don't know a whole lot about…like injuries. They want to prevent people from playing doctor based on what they see at practices," said Schaller.

 

One possible compromise, according to Schaller would be to let accredited members of the media report on what they see at practice but forbid fans from doing so.

 

According to Air Force SID Troy Garnhart that idea "is not something (Air Force) would consider because some of the information media report/blog [injuries, snaps a qb takes, who's doing what, etc] is the same as what a fan would which creates the same issue."

 

Schaller didn't mince words when I asked him if he would be unhappy if an Air Force fan or blogger posts something on a web site that leads to the Academy closing practices.

 

"I would be pissed off."

 

Ironically, at the University of Maryland their policies regarding access to practice gives preferences to boosters or fans who donate to the school.

 

Maryland SID Shawn Nestor confirmed to GoMids.com that this season members of the Maryland Gridiron Network and Terrapin Club – booster organizations that charge up to $1,200 a year in dues – are able to attend the entire practice whereas accredited members of the media can only attend the first five periods (about 30 minutes).

 

Surprisingly, the beat writers who cover the Terrapins have yet to raise any red flags over the policy.

 

"I'm sure they're not happy about it, but I haven't gotten any complaints so far," said Nestor.

 

There are, however, restrictions on what the boosters can blog or write about in regards to what they see at practice. According to Nestor if injury information finds its way onto the MGN web site, "that could put an end to them coming to practice."

 

When asked if he thought that accredited members of the media could provide information gleaned from practice that could put the team at a strategic disadvantage, Nestor was quick to answer.

 

"Definitely," said the Maryland SID.

 

Nestor cited the example of a web site that covers one of Maryland's 2009 opponents which gave specific information about how a quarterback was performing in practice. According to Nestor, that could be useful knowledge for game-planning.

 

However, Nestor said the local media gets plenty of face time with head football coach Ralph Friedgen.

 

"In general, Ralph is pretty open with the media. He tells them plenty about what is going on. We do a 15-minute session after each preseason practice and he goes in depth about player's performance, injuries, etc. I generally have to cut him off so we can go grab players," continued Nestor.

 

The social media fears at schools like Georgia Tech, Colorado, Air Force and Maryland, are not prevalent everywhere in college football though.

 

If Georgia Tech's Buchan and Maryland's Nestor are correct about rivals searching around the web for information on what their opponents are doing, then surely teams like Louisiana Tech and Western Kentukcy – new Navy opponents in 2009 - are very familiar with a certain Navy football blog that actually dissects the Mids' offensive plays from past games to very exact details.

 

The architect of the site does not, however, see any harm, nor should he, in what he does.

 

"If I thought that analyzing footage after a game would undermine the coaches' efforts, I wouldn't do it. Every coach already has film of past games to study from, anyway," said Mike James, the blog's owner. "Besides, let's be real here. I'm a blogger, which means I'm just a pimple-faced dork typing away on a computer in my mother's basement. I'm certainly not going to be telling a coach-- a guy who has spent his life in football and depends on his expertise to feed his family-- anything he doesn't already know about Xs & Os."

 

And as far as media attention goes, Navy Sports Information Director Scott Strasemeier wants as much as he can get for the Midshipmen football program – from all venues.

 

"I think you are always looking for more exposure," said Strasemeier. "The media market is tougher now than it has ever been with newspapers cutting down on coverage and (laying off) writers. We welcome any and all coverage. And we go after it. And if the media won't come to us, we will go to them."

 

Navy's aggressive media policy is based on a pretty simple philosophy according to Strasemeier.

 

"Nobody can sell the football program more than the midshipmen that play on the team. To get to know a Ross Pospisil, a Ricky Dobbs, a Richard Marshall…the more you get to know them and their stories, the more you are going to want to support them."

 

According to Navy beat writer Bill Wagner, being able to see how players perform and even interact with teammates throughout practice helps him tell the stories that Navy fans want to read. The first thirty or so minutes, which usually includes fundamentals and conditioning, just wouldn't be enough.

 

"I don't need to go to see an offensive lineman hit a sled. That's not going to help me," said Wagner.

 

"You become more emotionally invested when you know Ricky Dobbs' story instead of just knowing Navy's quarterback (wears jersey) number four," added Strasemeier. "To me, it's what makes college football great. It's getting to know all these stories about how these guys got here and what makes them who they are today."

 

Another factor that Navy, like Colorado, has to consider when it comes to its media strategy is the geographic market. The Midshipmen are definitely not the only football team in town. They have to compete for coverage every day with the Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens, as well as the aforementioned Terrapins.

 

A team that shares Navy's approach to media and fan access may just be the most successful program in college football over the last decade.

 

Since 2001, under head coach Pete Carroll's leadership, USC have won two national championships and own a gaudy 88-15 record. However, the Trojans have no concerns about who attends practice – and their media relations chief has no concerns about what blogger's post.

 

"USC has always allowed local and national media, as well as the public, into practices during camp, it's pretty wide open," wrote Tim Tessalone, USC's sports information director in an email to GoMids.com on Thursday. "I just walked off the practice field tonight and there were 400-500 fans there, plus a dozen or so media."

 

"Once we're into game weeks, we usually check public's id's to see who's coming in (and) on the rare occasion that media from opponent area wants to attend, they can stay for first 20 minutes or so and then come back for interviews at end," offered Tessalone.

 

As for whether or not Tessalone thinks USC would ever consider letting fans watch practices that are not open to the media, he was confident in their current policy.

 

"No...we've always been open...it's worked well for us...our players perform in front of 90,000-plus on Saturdays, so it helps them to have a crowd (and media) watching during the week too."

 

Army SID Bob Beretta, whose Cadets have a wide-open media policy similar to USC and Navy could also not foresee an instance where fans would have precedence over the media.

 

"I can't tell a media member not to show up if I have the general public there," said Beretta. "We want people to get excited about the product. We think we are going to be a national story this year."

 

The bottom line, according to Navy's Strasemeier, when it comes to determining the amount of access for media and fans, is what the leadership of each school believes is best for the institution. And in Annapolis, more is definitely better.

 

"We couldn't do what we do without the cooperation of our Athletic Director (Chet Gladchuck) and the head coach (Ken Niumatalolo). It's not like I am some super SID who can create all this type of access. We are very fortunate to have the support."

 

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