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WHSAA strengthens social media policy

May 15, 2012 - The Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- There wasn't one incident -- or even a series of incidents -- that led the Wyoming High School Activities Association to take on the issue of social media.

Not in Wyoming anyway.

Last summer, WHSAA commissioner Ron Laird attended a social media seminar where participants discussed an incident in which a friendly back-and-forth between a coach and referee devolved into a full-scale war of words involving multiple schools.

"One of the good things about us going to these national conventions is that those states can experience those problems and we can learn from them and be proactive," Laird said.

The WHSAA's social media policy, which went into place in November, merely extends to Twitter and Facebook existing policies about publicly criticizing referees and other schools.

The amendment to section 4.5.5 of the WHSAA Handbook ends with "etc." to cover the next wave of popular social media platforms.

Anyone found to have violated that policy faces a reprimand or suspension.

"Sometimes coaches don't think about how the question is asked, and they give a completely innocent response that sounds bad," Laird tells the Wyoming Tribune Eagle (http://bit.ly/K2SBqb).

Social media can be a valuable tool for efficiently getting messages to large audiences, but it takes self-discipline, officials say. Syndicated radio host Jim Rome often equates Twitter to a loaded gun. In the wrong hands people run the risk of blasting off a few of their toes -- or worse.

Cheyenne South athletics director Scott Noble only recently opened a Twitter account.

Noble is still learning the nuances of posting 140-character-long messages, but he only plans to use it to provide scores and other updates.

Noble said he never saw the need to get involved in social media, adding he has enough on his plate and didn't see any benefits.

Besides, Noble had eager support in the form of volunteer Allan Cummings.

Cummings -- whose son is a South sophomore -- has built a website loaded with schedules, records and other assorted information.

He also has established a South presence on Facebook and Twitter and helped develop an Internet streaming radio station that carries live sporting events and a weekly coaches show.

The South athletics portion of the LCSD1 website doesn't have much in the way of information, but it does provide a link to the site Cummings built. His labors of love have become the de facto voice of Bison athletics.

Cummings' efforts are well out on the periphery of the WHSAA policy because he isn't a South coach or administrator. That doesn't mean he is about to start ranting.

"I really go out of my way to make sure that anything I'm putting out there doesn't get misinterpreted," he said.

It's probably easier to count the South athletic events that Cummings doesn't attend than the ones he does. But he still has a few parents who help him disseminate scores for road games and other events through social media.

This fall one of those volunteers used South-branded social media accounts to disparage another Class 4A school and argue with students about, of all things, the Denver Broncos.

Cummings was alerted to the problem and withdrew the person's access.

"I want our site to be 100 percent South and to promote South, but that doesn't mean that it has to be against other schools," he said. "It has gotten way bigger than I ever imagined and I'm a lot more protective of the pages than I was in the beginning. I'm not the official voice of South High, but I don't want to lose the privileges I have."

Noble hadn't given much thought to the fact that something Cummings or another volunteer posted on social media could come back to haunt his school. He said he trusts Cummings and has bigger concerns.

"Individual athletes' pages worry me more because of the different communication that goes back and forth with students and their peers and family," Noble said. "With technology today and its availability, there's always concern."

John Gabrielsen knows well how unruly folks can get online, especially with the added comfort of anonymity. He helped co-found WyoPreps.com and was tasked with policing its message boards and comments section.

"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "It drove a lot of traffic because everyone wants to see it, but it was a lot of work monitoring all of the threads and making sure that somebody wasn't hammering kids, parents, officials or coaches.

"For the most part it was pretty good, but there were a few people with axes to grind."

Gabrielsen estimates that he had to close comments on 20 stories in the past six years.

WyoPreps was bought by Town Square Media late last year, and one of its requirements was that Gabrielsen do away with anonymous commenting. Commenters must now be logged into their Facebook accounts in order to post on WyoPreps.

The discussions are far less lively and sometimes border on non-existent.

"Apparently people don't feel as strong about their convictions when their name is attached," Gabrielsen said with a laugh.

"I was actually relieved about the new model. I had some people reach out to me and say, 'You're going to kill the site.' The way I look at it is if you don't want to put your name behind something, you probably shouldn't say it."

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