How Athletic Programs Are Handling The Rise Of Social Media

Kevin Long spent over a decade working in the federal government as a proud drug warrior. As a staff member for the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight  — the people who fueled the steroid panic in baseball — Long helped develop “Plan Colombia,” an aerial assault campaign against Colombian coca fields that damaged a lot of non-drug crops and “made Colombians hate us,” according to Radley Balko, a longtime reporter who has covered the drug war for Reason and the Huffington Post. After leaving Congress, Long continued to serve in the war on drugs, starting a consulting firm that “provided strategic communications counsel” to the Defense Department’s counter-narcotics programs in Afghanistan and Colombia.

These days, Long uses his talents not to monitor international drug activity, but rather to monitor the social media activity of college football players. More precisely, he runs a website, UDiligence, that colleges hire to “help protect their on-line reputations.” UDiligence is a branch of YouDiligence.com, a service sold directly to parents to “protect their children from cyber-bullies and Internet predators.”

The War On Words

Long presently contracts with four SEC schools — LSU, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Florida — and he said he’s “been in discussions with four others within the last couple of months.” LSU explains the relationship with Long’s company in its student-athlete handbook:

The LSU Athletic Department partners with U-Diligence to assist in monitoring social media databases. Currently enrolled student-athletes, managers and trainers are required to register with U-Diligence and grant all requested permissions on the application. The monitoring system is used to help protect your reputation. You not only represent yourself and your family, but also the athletic program and LSU. U-Diligence will alert the LSU Athletic Administration and coaches of any possible negative postings and, at the same time, you will receive negative e-mail alerts whenever something potentially problematic is posted on your pages by you or your friends.

When someone “registers” with U-Diligence, they’re installing an application that Long described as “a game like Mafia Wars or Words with Friends, except we use the app to search for keywords instead of play a game.” Long said his app searches for a “base list of 650 words” categorized by themes such as drugs or sex, as well as custom categories that an individual school or coaching staff can configure to their needs. “Some coaches put in a list of their opponents, opposing coaches, nicknames, high profile players for other teams for the season to curb trash-talking,” Long said.

As noted by the LSU handbook, whenever a search turns up a listed keyword, the athlete and the coaching staff receive an email alert. Each alert is then stored “in a secure online dashboard that only the coach and athletic staff can access,” according to Long.

Long said his service “is the new drug testing — it will be as common as being asked to take a drug test in the next two years.” He noted that “mistakes” on social networks like Twitter and Facebook “will now follow them for the rest of their lives.” To that end, Long also offers paid consulting for athletes and athletic departments through his other company, MVP Sports Media Training.

But is Long actually helping to perpetuate the problem he claims to be solving? Long’s background in drug war politics suggests he indeed knows how to capitalize on public fears to justify expensive and possibly unnecessary intrusions into the lives of individuals. His current service is simultaneously sold as “brand protection” for college football programs and a tool to protect children from the always ominous threat of “online predators.”

Social Media Blunders

NCAA Social MediaThat’s not to say there aren’t real pitfalls to using social media. We’re only a month into 2012 and there has already been three notable incidents involving social media and the sports world. Yuri Wright, a highly touted recruit out of New Jersey, was expelled from high school and “de-recruited” by Michigan for comments made on his Twitter page (Wright later committed to Colorado). CBS Sports and the Penn State news website Onward State prematurely reported the death of Joe Paterno, which led CBS Sports to fire the reporter involved and Onward State’s managing editor to resign. Finally, the Cleveland Plain Dealer “reassigned” longtime Browns beat writer Tony Grossi after he inadvertently tweeted a private message calling Browns owner Randy Lerner “a pathetic figure, the most irrelevant billionaire in the world.”

While none of these incidents involved current college football players, coaches and athletic departments remain on constant alert for the possibility of an errant tweet or Facebook post that may ignite yet another social media firestorm. Kate Burkholder, a spokeswoman for the Georgia athletic department, said monitoring social media usage was the responsibility of each individual coaching staff, “because they have different views that vary from team to team.” The athletic department does, however, “assist in monitoring to make sure nothing inappropriate is being posted, and in that case we would pass [that] along to the head coach.”

Burkholder said Coach Mark Richt “does not have a team-specific policy” regarding social media use, but that he “educates the players through student services personnel, sports communications staff, academic counselors, and outside consultants.” Burkholder said the athletic department does retain consultants to provide comprehensive “media training” for all student-athletes, which includes a component on “social media etiquette.”

Most SEC athletic departments have boilerplate written policies regarding social media usage. At South Carolina, for example, the student-athlete handbook emphasizes, “Student-athletes are accountable for what they post online.” Players are warned that anything they post on Twitter or Facebook “can be the basis for legal action by law enforcement or university Judicial Affairs (e.g., underage drinking or drug use) or NCAA compliance investigations.”

Employees vs Student-Athletes

NCAA compliance may in fact be the biggest pitfall of social media. It’s one thing to tell players not to post pictures of themselves using drugs, or alcohol if they’re underage. But NCAA rules purport to restrict every potential contact between a university and potential recruits. According to the NCAA, “Tweeting is permissible as long as coaches are not using it to contact prospective student-athletes and are abiding by the standard recruiting rules such as not discussing specific recruits or contacting them when it is not permissible.” But what happens when student-athletes, or even regular students, get in on the act? For example, in 2009 the NCAA said North Carolina State violated recruiting rules when students, who were not affiliated with the athletic department, set up a Facebook page urging a basketball player to sign with the school.

This is where we start to get into litigation and constitutional issues. The courts have long given the NCAA a wide berth to regulate student-athlete conduct on the grounds that playing sports is a “privilege” subject to certain restrictions on individual liberties. But the courts have also been vigilant in protecting the free speech rights of the general student body under the First Amendment.

Will Creeley is the director of legal and public advocacy at the Philadephia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit organization that challenges speech codes and other censorship policies at U.S. colleges. Creeley said that while he’s “suspicious” of social media monitoring of student-athletes, like LSU does with Kevin Long’s company, he believes it wouldn’t raise any constitutional red flags. “Because they are student-athletes, you agree to play by a different set of rules” that courts have found acceptable.

Yet there may still be limits. Creeley suggested that if social media monitoring extended to keywords that were political or religious — say Florida had monitored Tim Tebow’s tweets for any religious messages — then there “starts to be a moral argument” about the propriety of the university’s actions. Furthermore, if the NCAA were to step in and impose its own social media restrictions, courts might not grant as much leeway, because then we’re no longer talking about a contractual relationship between the student-athlete and the university. Creeley indicated courts would instead look at a “balancing test” weighing the First Amendment rights of the individual against the NCAA’s interest in protecting the integrity of intercollegiate athletics.

Ultimately, the NCAA and individual schools need to tread carefully before expanding their efforts to monitor or control social media use. Not because of constitutional concerns, but because of “amateurism.” The key to the NCAA’s power is the legal fiction that student-athletes are neither regular students nor employees of their universities.

In many workplaces, social media restrictions are commonplace. Employers often have an interest in limiting their own potential liability and protecting their brand. The problem for universities, of course, is that they are supposed to be educational institutions first and foremost. The NCAA itself goes to great pains to emphasize the “student” in student-athlete. Yet when it comes to free expression, student-athletes are treated more like employees than students. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if you continue to treat them as employees, then at some point they may demand to be openly classified as such.

It’s also worth asking whether all this hand wringing over social media use even accomplishes anything. In the three recent incidents discussed above, the schools and employers likely overreacted. Social media is still an emerging technology. Everyone inevitably makes mistakes or posts an ill-considered message. If every school or employer reacts to every such message, it leads to a culture where people are afraid to say anything at all.

Mike Florio of NBC Sports, writing about the Tony Grossi incident, made a particularly relevant point here. He noted that the Plain Dealer reassigned Grossi because his criticism of the Cleveland Browns owner supposedly undermined his credibility as a journalist, yet “[u]nder the newspaper’s view of journalistic ethics, it only becomes a problem when those views are disclosed — which actually should make Grossi even more credible, since he has openly acknowledged his bias.”

Social media is supposed to make the world more open and transparent, not less. Universities should be at the forefront of this movement, yet their athletic departments and the NCAA remain fixated on a World War II-era “command and control” policy when it comes to disseminating information. In the long run, social media restrictions will fail, and guys like Kevin Long will have moved on to their next manufactured crisis after collecting a few hundred thousand dollars from gullible athletic departments.

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