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June 6, 2009

New technology can be doube-edged sword

MORE: New tools in the recruiting game | Coaches adjust to generation gap

"When you get in that sterile room and you have to fill a cup. [] I've played in front of tens of thousands of fans, on live national television. I loved it. But one guy in a bathroom telling me to pee, I freeze like a cheap computer."
Former Connecticut defensive tackle Rob Lunn on his blog, Thoughts from a Fat White Guy

"Every time I get drug-tested, I can't help but laugh at the notion that I might be taking performance-enhancing drugs. If it weren't for the fact that a random guy is staring at my genitals, I'd almost be flattered. Seriously, do you really need to test my urine to see if I'm enhancing my performance?"
Ohio State basketball walk-on Mark Titus on his blog, Club Trillion

Warning college athletes to guard against revealing too much of themselves online can be a tricky proposition.

Mark Titus and Rob Lunn built an audience for themselves in the blogosphere by revealing the trauma of, well, revealing themselves.

Titus, a walk-on for the Ohio State basketball team, and Lunn, a former defensive tackle at Connecticut, maintain somewhat independent humor blogs documenting the day-to-day and not-so-glamorous aspects of college athletics, including random NCAA drug testing.

For some athletes, their public persona doesn't begin with their game-day performances and end with press clippings. Even the most rabid college sports fans would have trouble identifying Connecticut's starting defensive tackle or an Ohio State walk-on guard. Thanks to their blogs, though, Lunn, who started 20 games at defensive tackle with the Huskies, and Titus, who has played 30 minutes in three years, have grabbed a slice of fame.

Some aren't as lucky. Buck Burnette, Josh Jarboe and several others watched their college careers derailed or slowed because of photos, videos and statements posted on sites such as Facebook and YouTube.

The Internet can be as much of a friend as it is an enemy for a college athletic department. Bloggers such as Lunn and Titus peel back the curtain on some of the light-hearted moments of being an unheralded college athlete. An ugly side of athletics can be revealed just as easily.

Burnette, a former center at Texas, was kicked off the football team when he posted a racist remark on his Facebook page in November. Three months earlier, Oklahoma dismissed Jarboe, a freshman wide receiver, after he posted a YouTube clip in which he rapped about guns and shooting people; a few months before, Jarboe had been arrested for possession of a gun at his high school.

Athletes aren't exempt from the hordes of college students revealing their daily activities, likes, dislikes and opinions online for potentially millions to see. In recent years, college athletic departments have struggled with how to monitor athletes' activities online.

"We do have folks that monitor those things and keep an eye on them the best we can," Texas Tech coach Mike Leach says. "Our compliance office does a certain amount of advising on it. It's a new but moving target."

Lunn started his blog for a class during his senior year. It gradually picked up in popularity, with other blogs and mainstream media referring to his class project. Now, it averages about 30,000 visitors a month, he says.

The message behind it is that I'm the bench warmer. People identify with that. They don't identify with being the superstar.
Ohio State walk-on basketball player Mark Titus
Connecticut coaches and administrators were among those thousands. After Lunn vociferously accused ESPN of showing the Huskies little respect, Connecticut coach Randy Edsall told his defensive tackle he was keeping an eye on him.

"One practice, Coach Edsall pulled me aside and told me to watch what I put up there or he'd 'shut it down,' " Lunn wrote in an email. "I am incredibly grateful that he didn't."

Another administrator also asked him to take down a tongue-in-cheek post describing the health benefits of chewing tobacco.

"I think that most of the worry was that I was on there talking shop, telling opposing teams how we were prepping for them," Lunn wrote in his email.

He continued the blog after college when he joined the Carinthia Black Lions of the Austrian Football League. Now he's able to profit from the blog by selling T-shirts on the site. He's also increased his presence by posting for Deadspin.com and NESN, a cable TV network based in the Northeast.

Titus started his blog in October for himself and Ohio State's two other walk-ons. The three of them gave the blog its Club Trillion moniker, named after the typical stat line of a basketball walk-on: "1 minute played followed by a bunch of zeroes."

Titus initially didn't tell coaches or teammates about the blog, but it gathered a wide readership.

"The message behind it is that I'm the bench warmer," Titus says. "People identify with that. They don't identify with being the superstar. The emails I get are from people who say they feel where I'm coming from."

But the NBA didn't think he was funny when the self-deprecating Titus blogged about declaring for the draft. An Ohio State official told him the NBA demanded he remove his name from consideration "or else," Titus says.

When schools aren't worried about athletes revealing team secrets or embarrassing themselves online, they're worried about potential NCAA violations.

Lunn posted a YouTube clip of the iconic 1970s Tootsie Pop commercial ("in reference to a joke I made about 'how many UConn football players does it take to stop Pat White,' " Lunn wrote). UConn administrators asked him to remove the clip. Why? It could be interpreted as an endorsement for Tootsie Pops.

Ohio State officials met with Titus and his teammates with suggestions to protect themselves and the program's image online, warning them of what information and photos should not be on a Facebook profile.

"Ohio State does a good job," Titus says. "When my blog started, they said make sure to keep it clean. They're definitely on top of things."

If this sounds like paranoia, schools have good reason to feel that way. Texas and Oklahoma dismissed players. USC took a PR hit when eventual first-round draft picks Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing and three other teammates took a team's inside joke too far when they created a Facebook group called "White Nation."

Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet posted on his Twitter page about expensive food, "Fancy Life" and "Fancy Cars" during a trip to Miami in April; the Huskies' compliance department probably breathed a sigh of relief when Thabeet declared for the NBA draft days later. And as an April Fools' Day joke, Thabeet "tweeted" that he had failed a drug test days before the Final Four.

Thanks to the Internet, the interval between the time when an athlete posts something embarrassing on Facebook and the time fans, media and message boards are at a full frenzy is limited.

Oklahoma, at least, hopes putting a warning in writing will prevent future problems. The Sooners included recommendations for athletes using social networking sites in their annual compliance report. For instance, athletes are discouraged from portraying themselves in a negative light and posting anything that could put them at risk of violating their amateur status; violations can result in suspensions or reduction of scholarships.

" 'Partying,' 'drinking,' and 'getting wasted' do not qualify as real hobbies or interests," the policy warns.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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