Whether you think it's a sign of insidious racism or simply a joke that fell victim to political correctness, the Facebook USC football team controversy is a telling example of the care necessary when posting at social networking sites.
The Controversy Begins
It all began with a team nickname. On the racially-mixed 2007 University of Southern California football team, one of the black coaches dubbed the team's white players "White Nation." Clay Matthews, one of the white players, then took this nickname to Facebook and created a new group. Facebook allows any user to create and join groups. These people may be brought together by attending the same school or taking the same class, or they may be broader groups of people sharing an interest or hobby. Matthews' "White Nation" group was intended for his fellow white football players as an inside joke. However, his use of imagery was unfortunate - a black baby in handcuffs and a reference to its potential criminal tendencies. The group's description continued the questionable nature of the joke by mentioning the Aryan brotherhood.
Reaction to the Group
Another USC student, Stefanie Gopaul, first came across White Nation through her extended network of friends. She was bothered by the racist overtones of the Facebook profile and created a "Clay Matthews (USC football player) expresses anti-black sentiment" group to spread the word. As more people learned of the group, it became a public relations nightmare. Matthews, with the help of the sports department's public relations arm, apologized to the university, explaining the innocent, joking origins of the group.
However, not everyone was aghast at the Facebook group. Kyle Jahner, an opinion columnist, argued that the sports field has always been among the most racially progressive places in the United States. He saw the White Nation nickname as a sign of understanding and comfort with issues of race. Jahner argued that the group simply fell victim to a world that is much too sensitive about race and any student who was turned away from the school because of the controversy wasn't someone he wanted to attend USC anyway.
White Nation Today
Shortly after Matthews was taken to task for creating White Nation, he relinquished his administration of the group. A new group leader joined in an effort to subvert racism, using it as a platform to reeducate those joining the group with white supremacy in mind. The White Nation group no longer exists on Facebook, and with it the controversy seems to have died down.
Lessons from the Facebook USC Football Team Controversy
One of the biggest lessons social network users should take away from this incident is that anything you post online enters the public record. You never know who may be looking. For instance, there have also been cases where minors were cited for underage drinking or breaking the rules of an apartment lease after pictures of wild parties were posted on social networking sites.
Although not every Facebook misstep makes the national news, users should always be sensitive to how others might perceive their profiles. A private joke isn't so private when it's accessible to millions across the Internet, and it can easily offend someone who doesn't understand the context. If that isn't enough to make you think twice about posting an inappropriate picture or off-color comment, consider your future. High school and college students should carefully consider their Facebook profiles and ask themselves how they would look to a future college admissions officer or potential employer.