The week of August 24, 2014

Big brother is watching your favorite college athletes

By Aaron Sankin

In late July, a tweet by Penn State assistant coach Herb Hand caused quite a stir inside the world of college football:

In rescinding a prestigious spot on the school’s legendary football team, Hand implicitly offers a piece of advice for all aspiring college athletes: If you don’t watch what you post on social media, someone else will be watching it for you. Another tweet by Hand a few months prior only served to reinforce the message:

“There’s an opportunity in social media that’s very powerful to connect with people,” Hand told ESPN. “It’s important for people to understand that before they get involved with it because you also can shoot yourself in the foot real quick. That’s one of the problems with a lot of the young guys on there, players we’re recruiting. They don’t think before they post stuff. They don’t realize that this is your brand.”

In recent years, colleges around the country have moved to exert a far greater level of control over the public personas of student athletes—especially when it comes to social media. Schools are not only giving student athletes lists of what they can and can’t say online, they’re also requiring them to share their private postings with coaches or school officials, mandating ‟social media contracts,” and employing private companies to monitor their profiles.

“During one off-season, they gave us these papers we had to sign. It was a contract about how we could use social media. They warned us about how Facebook could make us vulnerable.”

This growing propensity by schools to take an active role in the online lives of student athletes reveals how social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are blurring the line between what a 19-year-old might perceive as a safe, private online space and one that’s universally accessible to anyone who wants to take a peek. It also raises troubling questions about students’ rights to free speech and how, by mandating what can and cannot be shared on social media, schools may treating these athletes more like unpaid employees than actual students.

A cautionary tale

The story of defensive back Will Hill is a cautionary tale of the personal damage that can be wrought by not thinking before you tweet. While playing in college at Florida, a series of Hill’s tweets about his sexual proclivities and drug use went viral. The former SEC All-Freshman team member ended up going undrafted and unsigned as a free agent, likely as a result. After a couple seasons in the arena football wilderness, Hill was eventually signed by the New York Giants, but his Twitter stream came close to derailing his NFL career for good.

For Andrew Murphy, a catcher for Rice University’s baseball team, the reasoning behind his school’s sudden interest in his social media habits was made abundantly clear after he, and all of his teammates, were forced to attend a mandatory meeting on campus a few years ago. At the meeting, a professional consultant showed slides featuring some questionable tweets and Facebook status updates from Rice student athletes and then demonstrated how easy it was for someone they had never met to get access to their social media updates—even if they had set their profiles to private.

‟All someone had to do was make a fake profile with a picture of an attractive guy or girl and then start friending friends of our friends until they reached us,” recalled Murphy, who will be starting medical school at Louisiana State University in the fall. ‟They didn’t go through a list of precisely what we weren’t allowed to say, but it was understood.”

Xavier Bowman, a Houston native who played receiver for Utah State’s football team, had a similar experience.

‟At first, they were only really interested in our conduct in general—not specially about how we used social media,” he explained. ‟But then, during one off-season, they gave us these papers we had to sign. It was a contract about how we could use social media. They warned us about how Facebook could make us vulnerable and that everything we did on there had to represent the school. They didn’t want us to portray the school in a negative way.”

 “It didn’t feel invasive; it felt justifiable.”

Utah State is located in a Logan, a small, conservative town about 80 miles north of Salt Lake City. Bowman noted that the school’s reputation within the community was important, which contributed to school’s primary concern about student athletes’ social media use—drinking and drug use.

‟Basically, they said not to take a picture of a party doing a keg-stand while wearing your football jersey and then post it to Facebook,” Bowman said, adding that players were required to friend a graduate assistant on Facebook who could keep tabs on what they posted.

Worries about college athletes livetweeting their own personal reenactments of Animal House aren’t the only things that schools would prefer not to have on the Internet. There’s also the whole pesky business of NCAA rules.

Murphy explains: “The school made us sign contracts every year about NCAA rules and those applied to what we did on social media. They said we weren’t allowed to do things like tweet, ‛This Subway sandwich is the best thing I’ve ever eaten #GoRiceOwls.’ Subway could take that and use it in an advertisement, which would be against the rules because it’s technically an endorsement of a product—something we’re not allowed to do.”

The necessity of colleges taking an active role in the online footprints of student athletes came as a result of a series of tweets that drew the ire of the NCAA. In 2010, a football player at the University of North Carolina tweeted that he was getting free bottle service at a Miami nightclub courtesy of a professional sports agent. Since student athletes are barred by NCAA rules from accepting gifts from boosters—especially from pro agents—the tweet raised the hackles of NCAA officials. The university was slapped with a $50,000 fine, and the team was barred from participating in any postseason games that year.

The blowback from the scandal was felt across the country. The following year, the University of New Mexico’s basketball team instituted a rule prohibiting players from tweeting at all. It’s now likely that the vast majority of NCAA Division I schools exercise some degree of control over what student athletes do online.

The social media monitoring complex

The University of North Carolina still allows its student athletes to tweet, but the university decided to enlist some professional help.

UNC hired a company called Varsity Monitor to keep track of what its students were doing online.

‟Varsity Monitor has provided social media services to the athletics industry since 2011,” company CEO Sam Carnahan explained in an email to the Daily Dot. ‟We offer social media monitoring solutions that help athletic administrators manage the athletes PUBLIC [emphasis original] social media conversation, allowing them to address any issues related to compliance, academic support, mental health issues and the like, enabling them to provide better overall support to the student athlete.”

Varsity Monitor is hardly unique. Over the past few years, a handful of companies like UDiligence and Centrix Social have sprung up to help schools manage what student athletes do online. (The latter was eventually acquired by Varsity Monitor.) These companies work primarily by following student athletes’ social media accounts and then flagging any posts containing certain trigger words.

It raises troubling questions about students’ rights to free speech and how schools may treating these athletes more like unpaid employees than actual students.

In 2012, sports site Deadspin used an open records request to Louisiana State University to find the master list of trigger words UDiligence provides to all of its university clients. The list included everything from creative profanity like “assclown” and “eff U” to racial slurs like “jewbag” and references to the “aryan brotherhood.” Mentioning a “bombing” or a “bio attack,” or even referring to the police as “five-0” would get a post flagged. Also on the list for some reason is “mailtoff cocktail,” a common misspelling of the homemade explosive device “Molotov cocktail.”

The University of Kentucky got dinged for including ‟Muslim” and ‟Arab” on its trigger words list; but the school had them removed after a round of bad press.

These monitoring companies also extend their services to the high school level. However, in those cases, their clients are often the parents of a promising recruit worried that a dumb Instagram post could prevent their kid from getting a full ride to play Division I ball.

Neither Bowman nor Murphy were particularly bothered by their schools’ intrusions into their social media lives. Being a college athlete involves jumping through a lot of hoops, and having someone looking over your shoulder to make sure you don’t tweet anything that could affect your ability to play professionally—or even just get a good job post-graduation—is likely less annoying than having to wake up at 5am on a Friday morning to run sprints before class.

‟In all honestly, most of the athletes seemed more upset about having to go to a meeting than being told we have to be careful what we posted online,” Murphy said with a laugh.

“I mean, we thought it was kind of annoying to have people looking at our Facebook accounts, but we trusted our administrators,” agreed Bowman. “It didn’t feel invasive; it felt justifiable.”

Even so, the whole concept of social media monitoring remains controversial.

One critic of the practice is Frank LoMonte. LoMonte is the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a 40-year-old group that focuses on advocating for and litigating free speech issues on campus. He charged that these policies often amount to censoring what students are allowed to say online and, in the case of public institutions, are violating the athletes’ First Amendment rights.

‟The starting point always has to be asking what sort of speech is not protected in the civilian world? The answer is almost nothing,” LoMonte insisted. ‟Is there something about the student-institution relationship that changes that?”

LoMonte explained that, within school time, it’s widely accepted that administrators have broad leeway to censor speech that’s disruptive to the institution’s educational mission. Initially, courts considered things students posted online as off-campus speech, over which schools have considerably less jurisdiction. However, as smartphones have become increasingly ubiquitous, courts have gradually become more amenable to the idea that everything a student does online should be treated as on-campus speech.

The primary goal of these monitoring efforts, he charged, is less about protecting student athletes from themselves, and more about preserving unity within the team or protecting the reputation of the institutions and their faculty. This is especially true when student athletes are dinged for voicing an offensive opinion—such as anti-gay hate speech.

“It’s one thing to say that we need to keep order within the team, and it’s another to punish someone from commenting on a political issue,” LoMonte said. “There has to be room for student athletes to be citizens.”

Student athletes or employees?

The inclination of universities to be concerned about what their student athletes say is understandable. Student athletes are public representatives of their schools, and what they do online could reflect back poorly on the institutions they play for. These concerns are hardly unique to academia. A study predicted that by 2015, 60 percent of all companies will be doing some sort of monitoring of their employees’ social media use.

Although, when it comes to collegiate athletics, there’s probably no word more problematic than employees.

The NCAA has fought vigorously over the years to prevent student athletes from being labeled as university employees. If they were considered employees, student athletes would likely have to be given a cut of the billions of dollars in profits generated from their labor and be allowed to unionize. In fact, the NCAA initially invented the term ‟student athlete” as a way to avoid schools having to pay workers’ compensation to players injured on the field or to the families of those who are killed playing college sports.

Since it’s generally only these student athletes who are required to have their social media monitored, critics claim schools are treating athletes as employees when it’s in their interest do so and running away from the definition when it isn’t.

It’s now likely that the vast majority of NCAA Division I schools exercise some degree of control over what student athletes do online.

In August, a federal judge ruled in a class-action lawsuit that the NCAA’s prohibitions on college athletes receiving payment for the use of their names and likenesses—in video games, for example—violated antitrust law. While the NCAA is appealing the decision, the ruling is a victory for those who charge that the college sports’ emphasis on the former half of the term “student athlete” is essentially exploitative.

Concerns about social media monitoring have even filtered up to the legislative level. Eight states have passed laws prohibiting schools from demanding access to the private social media accounts of current and prospective students. For critics like LoMonte, the laws are a good start, but they’re far from a comprehensive solution. Most of what is posted on Twitter is accessible to anyone on the service, and accepting a Facebook friend request from a coach or graduate assistant is something most college athletes would probably want to do of their own volition.

Varsity Monitor, which operates at schools within the eight states with these laws on the books, insists it only looks at athletes’ publicly accessible information.

Just as high-profile college sports like football and basketball prepare students for the big leagues, this form of social media monitoring can function as training for how these players will be expected to behave themselves online if they get drafted. Coach Hand rescinded a recruitment offer to a young man due to a series of thoughtless tweets. Similar judgements are made by prospective employers, not to mention potential romantic partners, around the globe on a daily basis.

For the overwhelming majority of college athletes who don’t go on to play at a higher level after leaving school, it’s one lesson that will stick with them long after they’ve left the spotlight.


Photos via Wikipedia, pixabay, and Will Weberly | Remix by Max Fleishman