Bob Ford: Schools scramble to monitor athletes' social-media activities after NCAA ruling

Posted: January 29, 2012

When University of North Carolina defensive end Marvin Austin took a couple of cool trips in 2009 between his junior and senior seasons, one to California and one to Miami, he did what any happy young person might do in the same position: He posted pictures to Facebook that showed him partying in Miami Beach and enjoying an expensive shopping spree.

Would have been a lot cooler if the trips, the parties, and the shopping hadn't been paid for by an agent, of course, and Austin, along with some of his teammates, never had a senior season for the Tar Heels. They were all suspended.

The fun didn't stop there for North Carolina, however, which threw itself at the mercy of the NCAA and self-imposed penalties that included a $50,000 fine, a loss of nine football scholarships, and two years of probation.

The NCAA looked it over and wasn't satisfied, citing Carolina for a "failure to monitor social media." The additional punishment hasn't yet been announced, but all over the country that case, and a few others, made university athletic directors shiver behind their desks.

"The NCAA basically said, 'You guys should have known what was happening,' " Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro said. "And that case, and the Ohio State case, too, was the trigger for a lot of us. We had to become more organized and more aggressive in our monitoring."

Last fall, Villanova contracted with Varsity Monitor, a firm that uses computer software to screen the social-media accounts of university student-athletes, looking for all manner of potential trouble. The athletes must sign consent forms and list all their accounts, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Many schools are employing similar services, while others have beefed up the scrutiny of social media by their compliance departments, and others merely keep their fingers crossed that they don't have a Marvin Austin-type of problem in the making.

It raises some privacy questions, naturally, although Varsity Monitor has no access to direct or private messages on those sites, only the ones that are already viewable by the entire world. And the systematic monitoring could be said to have a chilling effect on freedom of speech. But when universities weigh that against the stern hand of potential NCAA sanctions, it's an easy call.

"There was a small minority that felt a little uncomfortable that big brother was watching them, but we haven't had any real blowback," Nicastro said. "So far, only two issues have reached my desk, and they were very minor and didn't result in any disciplinary action. They were flagged for inappropriate language, and the students were just told to make sure they represent themselves the right way."

The job of policing a site as popular as Twitter or Facebook as well as keeping track of upstarts like Flickr and Tumblr is ridiculously difficult. Facebook has 800 million worldwide users. If it were a country, it would be the third-largest country on earth. So, if it takes spending a little money - published reports place the service at approximately $1,000 to $1,500 per team per year for Division I schools - to convince the NCAA you are really trying, that's cheap insurance.

"The university tells us what it is looking for, and we customize our filters to find that content they may be looking for," said Sam Carnahan, the founder and chief executive of Varsity Monitor. "In our work, typically, social media provides an early warning system that demonstrates a pattern of behavior that could become self-destructive."

The software programs used by Varsity Monitor, and similar ones employed by competitors UDiligence and Centrix Social, screen for 300 to 400 keywords, including "murder," "agent," and "bet," as well as expletives, racial slurs, and nearly all manner of references to alcohol and drugs. When a post is flagged, it is reviewed by a company employee, and a report is made to the school.

"Once we start working with a school, we don't see the volume of social-media use [by student-athletes] decrease, but we see the rate of potential miscues decrease," Carnahan said. "It's about educating them and protecting them from some of these issues."

Protecting them from themselves is useful, too. Dozens of athletes have gotten into trouble for ill-considered Twitter posts. Lehigh wide receiver Ryan Spadola was suspended for a playoff game for merely retweeting a slur posted by someone else about Towson State fans. Elon University running back Jamal Shuman was suspended for a profanity-laced tirade concerning his lack of playing time.

The best might have been Chris Early, a forward on the Chattanooga basketball team who tweeted this about his coach: "I hate this man with a passion, each and every day I have to see him I become more and more miserable." Early was immediately allowed to become less miserable.

For universities, those potential embarrassments are not nearly as important as being within the rules on recruiting and player benefits, both of which can be linked to social media.

Lawyer Victor Broccoli, of Rutherfordton, N.C., who wrote a recent legal article titled "Policing the Digital Wild West: NCAA Recruiting Regulations in the Age of Facebook and Twitter," says the NCAA is asking a lot of its member institutions.

"It's absurd to require them to monitor these sites. Look at the sheer amount of traffic," Broccoli said. "By forcing them to do this, I don't think there's much infringement on First Amendment rights, but the bigger problem I see is tort liability.

"The colleges are doing this to avoid the NCAA coming down on them, but what about the information the athletic department is collecting? What if someone posted that he was going to go out and get wasted that weekend and then had a driving accident that injured someone? If the university had that information and failed to act, that opens them up to negligence right there."

There's nothing easy about keeping up with the potential for problems that has presented itself so quickly. Facebook has been in operation only since 2004 and Twitter since 2006. Before that, these issues simply didn't exist.

"Things change very quickly, and our rules are catching up, but they don't always catch up as quickly," Nicastro said. "We've been lucky, knock wood. A lot of this comes down to common sense, and that's what you hope people use."

Think before you tweet, and ponder before you post. Those are the best guidelines for anyone, not just athletes. Especially when taking that shopping trip with the agent.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns, recent columns at www.philly.com/bobford, and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

 

|
|
|
|
|