Te’o case a cautionary tale for college athletes

It’s been quite the whirlwind in the world of social media this past week, especially in the collegiate ranks. Last Wednesday, Deadspin reported that Notre Dame’s star linebacker Manti Te’o had been involved in a massive hoax that took place over the phone and in the Twittersphere.

Te’o became the face of college football in 2012 when his girlfriend of nearly three years, Lennay Kekua, died of leukemia the same day that his grandmother passed away. It then came out that Kekua never existed and the relationship with Te’o was exclusively over the Internet — and that “her” Twitter account was being run by Ronaiah Tuiasasopo, an alleged friend of Te’o’s.

Now, the details are still a little hazy. Some believe that the linebacker was in on the scheme the whole time and was using the death of Kekua as a way to vault his Heisman Trophy status  with a sob story. Te’o said he was duped, though he acknowledged that the girl was indeed fake. The whole situation is a little crazy, to say the least. But if anything, this fiasco says more about the state of social media in collegiate athletics than it does about Te’o as a person. And this wasn’t the first instance that social media caused a major controversy in the 2012 season.

At the beginning of the college football season, ESPN reported that Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones tweeted, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS.” He faced a large backlash for making the statement. It’s clear that social media has taken control of college athletes and young adults as a whole; there really isn’t a way to stop it, either. No campus is safe from the potential destruction Twitter and Facebook hold within them. Athletes use it as a forum to express themselves, which is perfectly fine. Some use it to put themselves on a pedestal which, while conceited, isn’t really wrong. Many also use it as a platform to say damning things. Or, in certain circumstances, athletes use it for their social lives, whether it be promoting a party or professing love.

Not even USC is safe from the Twitter bug.

The Trojans made big news in December when senior linebacker Tony Burnett tweeted about how boring El Paso, Texas (the site of the Sun Bowl) is. According to The El Paso Times, Burnett tweeted, “Georgia Tech!? El Paso, Texas!? New Year’s Eve!? FML,” as well as the warning that, “If you never seen a giant real life tumbleweed get ready.” This led to a fair amount of drama, mainly about how spoiled the Trojans are, and added more fuel to the fire as to why many college football fans dislike USC. Fair enough.

On the whole, however, USC’s sports information department has been on top of its athletes’ social media accounts. Generally speaking, they’ve done a fantastic job of not putting players in a position to look like fools.

Take senior quarterback Matt Barkley, for instance. As one of the stars of college football, Barkley had the chance to take advantage of his fame via Twitter, whether it be through promoting himself or just advancing his social life. But, evidently, Barkley was instructed to be better than that. Taking a glance at his account, one sees tweets that read, “Happy Birthday to USC’s AD @ADHadenUSC! You are the best representation of what it means to be a Trojan!” or “You can’t practice ordinary habits and expect extraordinary results.. Challenge yourself!” Nothing flashy. Nothing incriminating. Just someone who has a positive message. It’s not just him, either — a tweet on former Trojan cornerback Nickell Robey’s page reads, “Don’t stress, we blessed!”

Granted, there are messages among friends on USC athletes’ Twitter pages that contain profane language, but that is to be expected. These are young adults we are talking about. But what I respect about the way USC handles its social media is that the players do not usually put themselves in a position to get in trouble.

USC is as big a stage as there is in college sports, and the athletes handle themselves as such: as role models who know there are people watching at all times. The message that “when you put something online, it is there forever” has been realized by the athletic department. The Trojans really serve as the perfect example of how social media is to be used in collegiate sports: responsibly and with the knowledge that people are always watching, waiting to see if you stumble.

The Trojans put each player’s Twitter handle on the USCTrojans.com website as a way for fans to interact with their favorite players. With a move like that, the school can’t afford to have players making mistakes.

I give a lot of credit to the athletes, coaches and sports information team for making sure the university doesn’t get docked for something a player says on the Internet. The athletic department has more important things to worry about than what its athletes are saying on Twitter. With such social media distractions out of the way, Pat Haden can focus on actual sports rather than having to go on the defensive. What a novel idea.


“Goal Line Stand” runs every Friday. If you would like to comment on this story, visit DailyTrojan.com or email Michael Katz at katzml@usc.edu.