Thursday, August 23, 2007

Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld, and Athletes' Facebook Photos

August 23, 2007, 10:45 a.m.

What Do Abu Ghraib and Athletes' Facebooks Have in Common?

Shortly after the revelations of the shocking practices at the Abu Ghrahib prison in Iraq I wrote a column headlined, "Lessons from Abu Ghrahib." There was much to say and wonder about that bit of American military history. But one was,
Given that Red Cross spokesperson Antonella Notari has said, "The photos are certainly shocking, but our reports are worse," how can one account for the administration's failure to respond to those reports?
I continued:
As Secretary Rumsfeld testified before the Senate, "It is the photographs, the people running around with digital cameras."

The problem, in short, was the public relations impact on American citizens (and possibly the president's re-election), and on Iraqis' "hearts and minds." The problem was not our pre-interrogation techniques, the problem was the pictures of those techniques. No cameras, no problem.

Before we get too shocked about this administrative response we need to reflect. Just how unusual is it?

Think back over publicized scandals involving deaths in hospitals, unsafe products, journalists' fraudulent stories, tobacco companies' lies, sexual abuse in the church, manufacturers' toxic dumps, or universities' athletic programs. How often have they involved facts well known to top administrators for some time? Or, if not known, facts that would have been known with even rudimentary monitoring and management information systems?

Without media coverage, whistle blowers are often ignored, even when they propose solutions. Remember the repeated warnings that contractors' practices risked setting the Old Capitol dome on fire? Recall Ralph Nader's proposal, many years before 9/11, that terrorists' hijacking of airplanes could be prevented by strengthening cockpit doors?

There are lessons for all institutional administrators from Abu Ghraib. Don't think you get the big bucks just for favorable public relations. Substance matters. Ethics matter. Human dignity matters.
Nicholas Johnson, "Lessons from Abu Ghraib," Daily Iowan, May 11, 2004.

Before I went in search of that column this morning I had long since forgotten that I had included a reference to "athletic programs."

But isn't that what's going on now with UI athletic and other administrators' reactions to our athletes' (and other students') Facebook postings?

In short, the problem is not the behavior the photos reveal, it is the fact the photos reveal it. The problem is, to repeat Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's expressed concern: "the people running around with digital cameras."

As the UI's associate athletics director put it in this instance, "We're looking at them [the Facebook pages and photos] to see . . . Is it something that is an embarrassment to the institution? . . . [I]t could be [that is, the photo could depict] an action that brings on public embarrassment."

Andy Hamilton, "Athletes' Photographs Under Review; Expert Talked to Coaches About Sites' Dangers," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 22, 2007.

And just what is on those Facebook pages? As Brian Morelli reports this morning:

The Facebook pages of more than 20 underaged University of Iowa football players have photos appearing to show them engaging alcohol in various ways, from drinking to posing with liquor bottles or beer cans.

In addition, several UI football players have messages attached to their profiles that discuss alcohol consumption, racial slurs and other offensive subjects.

"She can't say no if her mouth is taped shut," is posted as a favorite quote on one player's page. Another's says, "If you send me back to jail, I'll rape your family."
Brian Morelli, "Alcohol Abundant on Players' Sites; Review Shows Questionable Material," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 23, 2007.

You see, the problem is not that athletes (and other students) might feel that way, think those things, or even say those things. The problem is that when they put them up on their Facebook page it risks embarrassing the University.

As for the UI administrators' and Iowa City City Council members' "see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil" stance when it comes to the highly profitable and politically powerful bar owner and liquor lobby, Stepping Up Project executive committee chairman put it best:

"What it becomes is an anecdotal confirmation of what research has shown is going on at this university for years," Clayton said. "The behavior that is depicted in Facebook pictures, or in tailgate lots, should come as no surprise. It is ingrained in our local cultures."
Two recent reports make his point.

1. The Harvard University School of Public Health did a UI campus study. The result? During the prior month 70 percent of the UI's students had been binge drinking.

2. The Princeton Review reports that the UI is now number five in the nation for hard liquor consumption by students.

Any athletic program or other university administrator who claims not to have known about the amount, and serious consequences, of our students' (including "student athletes'") alcohol abuse before seeing it depicted within Facebook is either dissembling or incompetent.

So which is it? Is it that we really care one way or the other whether our students are abusing alcohol, consider rape a matter of right, and credit cards free for the taking? Or is it just that we don't want to suffer the institutional "embarrassment" of having our students' behavior -- and our obvious attitudes about it, as reflected in our inaction -- reported by the media or otherwise widely known?

What say you, President Sally Mason?

# # #


Anonymous said...

No one who lives in a college town is surprised by the kinds of activities in those pictures. College students test their limits in many ways and what they learn may be the most valuable lessons of their education. The real issue here is whether a critical mass of peer pressure is preventing students from facing the consequences of their actions. What some students learn is that they can evade the consequences of actions that harm others and delay the realization of how they are harming themselves if they do it in a crowd. Everybody does it. You can debate whether athletes benefit from their elevated status on campus but what they are doing in those pictures is not out of the norm here. Everybody does it. Does the 19 law attract a core group of party hardy students and encourage others to believe that binge drinking is the norm? Would Hawk fans ever admit that the downtown bar culture is partially responsible for encouraging irresponsible behavior of tha playas? Everybody does it. Say it often enough and you can rationalize just about anything. Would a 21 law make any difference?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, many of the college students drink. However, you have to examine the photos carefully to see what's going on.

Look at what the hands are doing. Look at the colors worn. You tell me if you see the same thing I see.

If the hand gestures and colors worn mean something, then this isn't normal student activity.