By Nate Tenopir, Editor-in-Chief
In the last year and a half, college sports have been struck by two of the most bizarre and troubling incidents in NCAA history. Last November the tragedy and cover-up at Penn State was a wakeup call for many schools.
Prior to the investigation and subsequent firings of university officials and legendary coach Joe Paterno, most colleges had not considered the response or the ramifications of child molestation on campus. Make no mistake, Manti Teo’s fake girlfriend pales in comparison to the heinous acts of former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky. But if there is a similarity between the two, it’s in the unexpected nature of both situations.
Before Penn State, you’d be hard pressed to find any athletic department that had a contingency plan for an employee sexually assaulting children on university property. Before Wednesday you’d be equally hard pressed to find an athletic department that knew how to respond to the fabrication of a personal relationship that captured the imagination of fans across the country.
“Prior to this week, who would have thought about this? It wasn’t something you thought about,” Assistant Athletic Director Mike Kemp said. “It was so far out of the realm of what you consider that now that it’s happened, I think it’s gonna be something that we’re gonna have to at least discuss and figure out how we might respond.”
At UNO, the athletic department doesn’t necessarily have a policy on dating or relationships. Director of Athletics Trev Alberts said getting that far involved in a student-athlete’s life is not something the department is interested in.
What the university would rather do is give their players an education on what is expected of a UNO student-athlete and allow them to make decisions on their own.
“I personally think this is just like the social media stuff we deal with,” Alberts said. “We’ve taken the approach, like through social media, [of] education.”
Before the school year the athletic department meets with all of the student-athletes and explains the social media policy. Alberts said his coaches and staff try to make it real to the players that everything in the virtual world eventually comes out in the real world.
Student-athletes walk away from those meetings knowing the expectations about what they’re posting on Facebook, on Twitter or any other social media outlet.
“We monitor it, our coaches monitor it, and then if there’s inappropriate posts, then there’s corresponding ramifications,” Alberts said.
In terms of dating, or online dating, there is nothing specific. Match.com created a marketing campaign based on the statistic that one in five relationships start online.
If that statistic is accurate, then one would have to assume that among the more socially connected, tech-savvy college age group, it has to be even higher. But administratively, there are certain things UNO can and cannot tell their student-athletes to do.
Through education and communication the athletic department believes it gives its players the necessary tools to live and compete appropriately. Having an online relationship with a person you’ve never met who lives several states away is a situation Kemp feels the student-athletes would know to avoid.
“As a coach, one of our primary roles is– don’t do anything that brings any kind of embarrassment on yourself, the school, your family,” Kemp said. “It’s in basically very general terms, but it encompasses everything.”
Alberts said the dating online issue is a conversation coaches and staff have with the players. At the same time, Alberts also admitted that news of the Manti Te’o situation shows that there are “new realities that we face every day.”
Being online or participating in social media poses many dangers for college athletes in the public eye. Rather than shelter the players from the bad side of new-age communications, Alberts said UNO chooses to embrace the positive possibilities.
“We’ve taken the approach [that] you can try to disassociate your students with social media, or you can say let’s use social media as a driver, as a positive driver,” Alberts said. “We encourage the usage because they can really help influence in a positive way the perception of the program, how things are going, wins and losses.”
Alberts, Kemp and the athletic department can teach and prepare their student-athletes for a multitude of situations. But they’re also not naÃ¯ve enough to think that some people won’t stray and make harmful decisions.
What happens in a situation where a UNO student-athlete screws up in a very public way?
“If it’s an athletic department-specific policy, we’re always going to work to help the students progress and succeed,” Alberts said. “If the law is involved and felonies are committed, it’s kind of removed from our handling. It turns into a legal matter and certainly a university matter in terms of how they handle those situations.”
Alberts indicated UNO’s focus is more about reconciliation than it is punishment.
“We’re in the business of developing, mentoring, growing and supporting young people,” Alberts said. “Our young people make mistakes just like I did when I was young. We always attempt to err on the rehabilitation, the second opportunity.”
Although Alberts is a young athletic director, neither he nor Kemp said they can really identify with the world of today’s young people. Kemp can still remember trying to ask for a date on the phone in the dorm hallway while being harassed by the six or seven guys who wanted to watch the show.
More than ever, Kemp said that reaching young people requires coaches to be as knowledgeable about new methods of communication as the players are. It’s just the way we live now, Kemp said.
But in terms of the coach-player relationship, Kemp thinks there are some things that will never change.
“As a coach you have a lot of opportunity to be involved in players’ lives regarding issues such as interpersonal relationships,” Kemp said. “More on a one-on-one basis than in a group basis, you may talk in generalities about relationships and basically talk about respect and the important things in life.”