Monday, August 07, 2006

The Introspective Light of MySpace

This morning, the Knoxville News-Sentinel ran a story about Tennessee and other college athletes and their MySpace/Facebook pages. There is some noteworthy news here, when it deals with potential future recruting violations and other things of improper contact. However, some of the story deals with the content on the players' MySpace pages. What you'll find there, as you'd imagine, is a wide variety - and probably many of the same things you'll find on your own MySpace page, or among your friends'. There's some profanity, "inappropriate" jokes and/or videos from YouTube or others, some pictures of attractive women that leave little to the imagination, pop culture references (Scarface aplenty), you name it.

MySpace, of course, is essentially a method of personal expression. It's your page, you can do whatever you want with it. Short of pornography, anything goes. And I've never been convinced that that's a bad thing. This is America, we love our freedom of speech and expression, and it's your own page. You can put whatever you want on there.

Where the Knoxville News-Sentinel approached crossing a line is when they ran a list on their website of 44 Vol players' MySpace pages, with direct links to each individual personal page. Is it totally within their rights as a newspaper to do that? Probably. Was it right? Well, that's a whole lot of gray...

(In the interest of "journalistic integrity", here's the link)

Would many of the 44 University of Tennessee football players who had their MySpace pages posted this morning have done something differently on there if they had known the News-Sentinel was going to do that? Without question. But again, what you find is a slice of reality. What you see on someone's MySpace page - especially in the case of a student-athlete at a major university in a high profile sport - is probably a better representation, if not the best representation, of who that person really is that any casual fan will ever get to see.

Some of the comments on the newspaper's website have Vol fans - many of them older with no experience with MySpace at all - shocked at what they find, upset that something like this is allowed, and thinking that the players should know better. Are they more out of touch than they are right?

This is the continuing price you pay to wear the orange and white...or any colors of a university where football or basketball is god. When you, by your own choosing, sign up for MySpace and then represent/express yourself however you choose to, you're out there, wide open for anyone to see. MySpace does offer a feature where your profile cannot be viewed unless you choose to add that person as your friend first - an option I'm sure many of those 44 Vols wish they had chosen earlier. But reality is, you're still putting yourself out there, a digital representation of who you are.

When I was younger, people used to tease me about my undying allegiance to Peyton Manning. And along with the belief that he was the greatest quarterback in the history of college football was the notion I wanted to hold that Peyton was (and is) an outstanding, near-perfect individual. In my mind, he never got drunk. He never did drugs. He never cheated on his girlfriend. I needed him to be everything I wanted the starting quarterback at the University of Tennessee to be. When later Vol quarterbacks came around, and we were students at the university at the same time and you would hear rumors of who was at what party doing what, I still wanted to shrug that off and pretend I didn't hear it or even begin to entertain believing it.

Now, that's certainly not reality. Everybody is a human being, we all do incredibly stupid things. Often. That's real, that's life, that's okay. But I did think back to those Peyton Manning days this morning, wondering that if I was in middle school now with access to MySpace, wouldn't I be searching out for my favorite Vol players (or I could just use the News-Sentinel's handy list...)? And wouldn't I be surprised at what I saw? And a little bit disappointed?

Whether or not Little Jimmy from Sweetwater is looking up his favorite UT Vol on MySpace is a concern each player has to address with themselves individually. But I do know this: Charles Barkley - the potential future governor of the great state of Alabama - once said that he was not a role model. And that's another statement with a lot of gray. But the reality is that, when you choose to place yourself up there, when you choose to put on that jersey, you also (perhaps unknowingly) choose to put yourself in the spotlight. Everything is fair game, apparently. Even MySpace, a place for personal expression with no limitations, can become the headline story on a Monday morning. Whether that's right or wrong, that's reality.

And it's not just college athletes. People have been fired from their jobs because of something they posted in their own personal blog. In ministry, we share a spotlight of a different kind. Much like college athletics, teaching, or many other professions, when you choose to walk down this road, there are simply certain things that go with it that you cannot avoid, certain pedastals that you will stand on whether you want to be a role model or not. I've had ministry friends who've blogged on their own personal sites in direct opposition to the practices and teachings of the denomination that employs them. Having an opinion and passionate beliefs is one thing. Being smart about it is something else.

Even for me - and I enjoy MySpace - on my blog there, I wrote that something "really pisses me off" a few weeks ago. And on this blog, I posted yesterday about a "BS call" by a referee. Those are my words, that's a representation of who I am. And at the same time, as a pastor, if my phone rang this morning, and it was someone in the administration of my denomination saying "listen, we need to talk about some of the words in your blog", I wouldn't be 100% surprised.

We are who we are - those in ministry, college football players, whatever. And we represent ourselves as we choose to be represented. We put ourselves out there and show the world who we are. There's nothing wrong with MySpace, there's nothing wrong with personal expression. But the reality of life puts college athletes, and everyone, in the same penetrating light every day. And ultimately the choices we make become the people we are to the world.

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