Moments after Kurtis Stirneman committed to play college football at the University of Wyoming, he broke the news the fastest way he could.
The Marian Central senior offensive tackle posted a photo on Twitter with his new coach and a fellow recruit seconds after it was taken in Cowboys coach Dave Christensen’s office.
“Leaving Laramie, Wyoming…a Cowboy #committed,” Stirneman tweeted.
In 46 characters, Stirneman intended to have his friends share in his excitement. In reality, he threw himself into a universe inhabited by 500 million. The 140-character world, along with Facebook, is one where users are free to speak their minds unfiltered and release their thoughts to a vast audience.
While social media sites grow exponentially throughout all demographics, they are especially popular among high school students, who can access the site from anywhere at any time from a phone. According to an Edison Research/Arbitron Internet and Multimedia study, 29 percent of Twitter users are between the ages of 12 and 24.
High schoolers post about everything from games they play, to TV shows they watch, the people they date to the mountain of homework they face. It’s become a primary mode of communication between friends and teammates.
But as second nature as communicating through status updates and tweets has become, the pitfalls aren’t always evident. Until they are.
This past week, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o became the subject of a bizarre national story surrounding his alleged social media relationship with a woman who Notre Dame now says never existed.
Last month, longtime Marian Central assistant coach Steve Spoden was fired for a Facebook post stating he wanted to take bats to the knees of rival Montini players and carpet bomb the town. Spoden, who has since deleted his Facebook account, said he was new to the site and thought his message would only be seen by the Marian Central football player whose status he commented on in an effort to console him after a loss.
Spoden said he hopes, if anything, students can learn from his mistake.
Last summer, Crystal Lake Central boys basketball coach Rich Czeslawski stood in front of a classroom, pointing to a projection screen displaying Twitter posts. There was objectionable language and lewd topics. But all of them – to his Tigers’ players’ surprise – had come from the Twitter feeds of those inside the room.
Players stared at the screen, stunned.
“It was a huge eye-opener,” Czes-lawski said.
The exercise in social media wasn’t used to embarrass the players, Czeslawski – who has 1,200 folllowers @CoachCzes – wanted to demonstrate how easily accounts can be accessed.
For high-profile high school athletes, the risks are even greater.
Crete-Monee senior Laquon Treadwell saw his Twitter followers rise to more than 12,000 the weeks leading up to Thursday, when he announced he’d continue his football career at Mississippi.
Treadwell (@SuccessfulQuon) who played a starring role in the Warriors’ state championship win over Cary-Grove in November, is considered by recruiting sites the top receiving prospect in the nation. He said last week he uses Twitter as a way not only of communicating with fans, but to also control the message when rumors began piling up about where he’d play in college after narrowing his field to Ole Miss, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.
Treadwell said he tries to remain positive but knows people are watching his every move and that he has to be cautious about what he puts on the social media site.
“You really have to watch it because someone’s out there that’s going to try and make you look bad and make what you said bigger than it really is,” Treadwell said. “I think [Twitter] gives you a chance to back yourself up with everything that is being said about you.”
Communicating with unintended audiences is one of the largest social media slipping points facing high school users, according to Karen Weaver, a professor in Drexel University’s sports management department. She travels the country as a social media expert speaking to athletes and coaches.
Weaver, a former athletic director at Penn State-Abington and NCAA Division I field hockey coach, said too many high school athletes operate on social media sites without realizing there are often consequences for posts that drift out of the bounds of decency.
Rather than traditional print and digital media sites that may take their youth into consideration when printing comments, Twitter and Facebook provide an open forum that doesn’t discriminate.
“Sometimes, young folks under the age of 21 or 22 don’t really see the longer-term implications,” Weaver said. “They don’t see the immediate impact, which is, anybody can see what I’ve written – not just my followers or my friends.
“The longer-term impact is that it exists in the digital world forever.”
The harshness of operating within a vast social media world is one that Spoden has been forced to come to grips with since being fired at Marian Central.
“I broke every rule I’ve set forth for my kids,” Spoden said last week. “That’s what upsets me the most … I forgot my own rule.”
Like many other area high school sports programs, Marian Central doesn’t have specific social media guidelines outside of players not saying or posting anything that could be misconstrued as detrimental to their own team or opponents. But there are consequences for those who don’t follow the rules.
Johnsburg boys basketball coach Mike Toussaint (@CoachTous) said one of his players was suspended a game earlier this season for breaking that rule.
While Twitter regulars such as Toussaint, Czeslawski and Woodstock boys basketball coach Al Baker (@Coach_Al_Baker) say they don’t have time or the interest to monitor their players’ social media accounts, their most basic rule is the same.
“Eventually, things are going to come out and so (I tell players) ‘Use your head,’ ” Toussaint said. “If you say it, forget it. If you write it, you’re going to regret it.”
Many area athletes say they learned their lesson after Spoden was dismissed.
Crystal Lake South running back Zevin Clark (@ZevinClark) has used Facebook and Twitter to communicate with college football coaches or learn about programs. Clark says social media became a convenient way to market himself to potential football suitors.
But Clark, who plans to play at either Northern Illinois or Division II West Virginia State next year, said he was guilty of posting with offensive language. But when Spoden was fired, he stopped.
“Before, I just posted what came to mind and I just left it at that,” said Clark, who said many of his Facebook friends are younger fans. “I didn’t really care what I posted.
“Now, I’m more careful or concerned. I have to think it over before I post it.”
Like Clark, Stirneman (@Kurtisstirneman) is more aware of who is viewing his posts. Included among his followers are assistant coaches from Ohio University, Bowling Green and Iowa State along with the wife of Wyoming’s football coach, making him increasingly cautious of what he’s posting.
Stirneman said Marian Central administrators monitor students’ social media accounts and that he was called into a school administrator’s office for using the word “damn” in a Tweet after the Wyoming recruiting trip.
He says the school’s assistant principal chided him for the obscenity, requesting that he didn’t have to edit his social media content in the future.
While the disciplinary warning was relatively tame, Weaver says it’s an example that nothing that exists in the social media universe is completely private. Since 2008, the Library of Congress has compiled an archive of every tweet.
“It’s not a matter of if it’s going to be discovered,” Weaver said. “It’s a matter of if something does, who’s going to bring it to [administrators’] attention. People know when it’s inappropriate, and chances are, it’s going to make its way to a head coach or a principal’s office.”
While coaches such as Toussaint won’t forbid players from posting on social media, he’d rather they avoid it. Toussaint joined Twitter as a way of communicating with fellow coaches and as a way of promoting his team.
He uses the site to post game schedules, practice times and results while picking up helpful information posted by his coaching colleagues, inlcuding Woodstock’s Baker and Central’s Czeslawski.
Cary-Grove football coach Brad Seaburg isn’t a fan of social media. He says he has better things to do and doesn’t want to put his thoughts out for interpretation by the general public. He knows his players are on Facebook and Twitter but said he has no interest in monitoring their activity.
Seaburg said he addresses concerns as they come up, but said with so many players under his watch, he can’t possibly oversee every aspect of their lives.
“It’s a lot like parenting – you can’t be around them 24 hours a day,” Seaburg said. “You have to hope they make wise decisions and they do the right things and hope they follow the values you have tried to instill in them.”
But Weaver said teenagers often proceed unaware that their interactions can come to define them to college coaches or potential employers.
“What happens is that students take that same assumption of protection, and it’s almost like a cocoon,” Weaver said. “And with Twitter and Facebook, that’s not the case.”
While coaches have adjusted to social media, for some it can be too revealing. Last year, after disciplining one of his players for violating team policy, Toussaint learned that a parent had angrily taken his decision to task on Facebook.
Toussaint refuses to “friend” his players on Facebook, an action Weaver said is dangerous because it blurs the line between coach and player. Since then, Toussaint has been leery about posting anything more than official notices, rarely using his Twitter account for anything but official basketball business.
“It’s probably more of a negative for high school athletes or coaches to be involved with it,” Toussaint said. “Sometimes, people get caught up in the moment and it’s an easy way to release, ‘Hey – I’m upset.’”
Last week, after the Dundee-Crown boys basketball team lost a double-overtime thriller to rival Jacobs, D-C student and Chargers fan Tim Olson tweeted, “Can’t help the refs favor Jacobs, we played our hearts out.”
It didn’t take long for Jacobs guard Will Schwerdtmann to reply.
“You serious”,” Schwerdtmann tweeted to Olson. “The refs didn’t hit those 3’s. The refs didn’t turn the ball over 3 straight times in overtime. #dontbeasoreloser
Remaining cautious on social media is a lesson Stirneman, who said he resisted posting anything on Twitter or Facebook immediately after Marian’s season-ending loss to Montini, will carry with him into his Wyoming football career. He has, after all, seen firsthand what can be lost.
“Sometimes, you have to realize that you need to keep your emotions in check as much as possible,” Spoden said. “But sometimes they slip out. You’ve got to be careful of what you say. Sometimes, you say things that are taken completely out of context.”
Coaches who use Twitter as a means of promoting their programs:
• Crystal Lake Central boys basketball coach Rich Czeslawski @CoachCzes
• Crystal Lake Central girls basketball coach Paul Lichtenheld @coachlichty1
• Woodstock boys basketball coach Al Baker @Coach_Al_Baker
• Johnsburg boys basketball coach Mike Toussaint @CoachTous
• Johnsburg football coach Mike Maloney @FB_Coach
School-affiliated Twitter feeds:
• Cary-Grove @CGBoosters
• Cary-Grove basketball @CaryGroveHoops
• Cary-Grove football @CG_Trojans
• Crystal Lake Central @CLCTigers
• Crystal Lake South @CLSouthathletic
• Crystal Lake South softball @CLSSoftball
• Huntley @HuntleyBoosters
• Jacobs @JacobsAthletics
• Prairie Ridge @PrairieRidgeHS
• Marian Central @MCHurricanes
• Woodstock High School @WBlueStreaks
• Woodstock North @WNHSathletics