Two weeks ago a member of the Arizona Wildcats marketing department congratulated Bill Ryden on establishing a Twitter account for his gymnastics program.
The account, AzGymCats, gave multiple updates per day with fast facts, trivia questions and quotes about the team. It congratulated Wildcats past and present in other sports, from Luke Walton to Nic Wise.
There was only one problem.
"It wasn't us," the coach said.
Ryden — who has his own personal Twitter account — doesn't believe the author is a current player or coach. The author did not respond to questions about his or her identity over Twitter.
For Ryden, it reinforced a basic truth of growing technology: Social-networking sites offer murky dangers.
The Arizona Wildcats are taking steps to combat that fact, protecting players and encouraging coaches to use the latest technology to their advantage.
Ryden, a rocket scientist before starting his coaching career, believes it's a positive step.
"No matter what you do," he said, "how can you believe that the person on the other end is who they say they are?"
When it comes to athletes, the bigger fear is that readers know exactly who they are.
On social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, athletes can post pictures and conversations accessible to anyone by a simple search-engine query.
Starting this fall, however, all UA athletes will be required to set their Facebook pages to private. That means only viewers approved by the athlete will be allowed to see the pages.
Punishment for failing to "reflect the high standards of honor and dignity" of a UA athlete "could result in punishment, up to and including reduction or non-renewal of your athletic scholarship," according to the new rule.
Gretchen Bouton, the UA's compliance coordinator, suggested the shift to senior associate athletic director Kathleen "Rocky" LaRose this year.
When Bouton was preparing a presentation about social networking for a December Pac-10 meeting, she was shocked by the number of Wildcats whose pages were public.
In the past, the UA had simply warned athletes to try to be smart on social-networking pages, eschewing any notion of banning their use.
"What we have realized is there's a high security risk with some of our student-athletes … that are celebrities in the athletic world," LaRose said.
The policy is meant to protect athletes from outsiders, LaRose said.
It encourages them to keep their phone numbers and addresses confidential and to limit the publication of their e-mail addresses. The document details the physical dangers of stalkers, thieves and predators, and the eligibility threats of agents and gamblers.
There is also the issue simply of a photo or statement causing embarrassment to the university — and perhaps future employers.
"These are young people and sometimes they do things inappropriately as they move through life," LaRose said. "That's part of our education — to teach them things that might be inappropriate on their Web site.
"Is that the main reason for this? Honest to goodness, no."
Ainsley Oliver, a soon-to-be sophomore diver, uses her Facebook page at least once a day to keep up with friends and family in her native Canada. She switched her settings to private at the urging of a friend earlier this month, but as a rule said she keeps her page to a "PG" rating.
"It's a good and safe thing for athletes," she said. "I think it's common sense to make it private."
It's good business for coaches to set up their own pages.
After teaming with the NCAA to make a presentation about social networking to Pac-10 members, Bouton decided to explain the sites to the Wildcats coaches.
About three months ago, UA coaches from each sport met with the compliance office. Bouton gave the room a quick primer on Facebook and then told them what was permissible in the eyes of the NCAA.
"I was surprised at what we were allowed to do," Ryden said.
Coaches can accept friend requests from prospects. If the prospect is a junior or senior, they can exchange messages in each other's inbox, as though it were an e-mail. Coaches can also post any video that would be permitted on the school's Web site.
"They were saying, 'Hey you guys can do this. It's legal,'" said UA volleyball coach Dave Rubio. "NCAA rules tend to lag behind the electronic age. It was surprising that we are able to do as much as we are able to do."
Coaches can't comment on an athlete's wall or pictures, or send them virtual "gifts."
"The next thing we're going to do is set up a compliance Facebook page," Bouton said. "And become their friends and monitor their activities."
Monitoring will go both ways — for players to stay private and coaches to become more public, both without breaking the rules.
"UA athletes are very high-profile," said Ryden, who admits to being overprotective of his gymnasts. "If they're not going to be smart for themselves, we're going to be smart for them."
The Wildcats plan to change their thinking with the times.
"We're being proactive," Bouton said. "As the sites grow in popularity we have to take a look — maybe more than once a year — to make sure we're keeping up with all that's happening."
CODE OF CONDUCT
The first paragraph of the UA's new code of conduct regarding social networking sites reads:
• "As a student-athlete at the University of Arizona you are not only representing yourself and your team, but the entire university and community. Because of your higher profile on campus, it is important that you be concerned with what is being published on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. If you choose to have a personal site, it is departmental policy to set your privacy settings as to not allow the public to view your page. You are in a very vulnerable position as a student-athlete, and this policy is to protect your personal information."
In general, here's what coaches can do on Facebook:
• Accept a friend request from a recruit
• Write a note in a Facebook "inbox" after Sept. 1 of the recruit's junior year.
• Post video and anything else permissible on the school's Web site
And what they can't:
• Comment on the recruit's "wall" or picture
• Comment on their own page about the recruit
• Post links to recruiting Web sites
• Send virtual "gifts" to recruits
• Include a recruit in "top friends"