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Social networks pose monitoring challenge for NCAA schools

By Michelle Brutlag Hosick

Some NCAA schools feel caught between a rock and a hard place in the realm of social media monitoring – with the possibility of missing violations as the rock, and the prospect of state or federal laws protecting privacy rights and free speech as the hard place.

Many member institutions feel pressure to monitor their student-athletes’ online activity to demonstrate effective oversight that will stand up to scrutiny if ever faced with allegations of significant violations of NCAA rules.

And now, states – and even the federal government – are debating the need to implement legislation to make sure privacy rights aren’t violated when schools become involved in a student’s social networking.

In March 2012, the Division I Committee on Infractions released its public report on the penalties assigned to North Carolina for various violations, some of which were uncovered via social media. The report led to some misconceptions among the membership that schools are required to monitor social media or face the dreaded “failure to monitor” finding in the event of a violation.

In fact, the committee specifically wrote that it “declines to impose a blanket duty on institutions to monitor social networking sites” and suggested that if the membership wants institutions to be held accountable for what’s available on their student-athletes’ social networks, members should propose and adopt new rules.

“The NCAA has no bylaw, policy or recommendation that directs schools to monitor social media,” said Naima Stevenson, associate general counsel at the NCAA. “We would certainly not ask member institutions to require student-athletes to provide username and password information for purposes of monitoring social networking activities.”

On July 20, 2012, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed a law that prohibits schools from requiring – or even asking – students to turn over social media log-in information. Schools can’t ask kids to log in to social networks in the presence of someone from the school. They also can’t require students to install monitoring software. And they aren’t allowed to monitor social media by requiring students to add coaches or other representatives of the institution to their social networks. The law doesn’t prevent Delaware schools from monitoring any social media accounts that are available to the public.

“Our coaches used to have our student-athletes either friend them or they would follow them. They wouldn’t watch them every day, but they would monitor them to see if they saw anything a little crazy,” said Pegjohngy Moses, associate athletics director for internal operations at Delaware State. Any follow-up was done privately with the student-athlete and consisted mainly of gentle warnings about posts that could be NCAA violations or breaches of the school’s code of conduct.

The Hornets brought in a speaker to talk to student-athletes about responsible use of social media.

By instituting an educational program, Delaware State will follow a popular path. Mike Hagen, assistant athletics director for compliance at Liberty, said that while the North Carolina case didn’t obligate him to monitor, it certainly spurred his office to begin evaluating the creation of a social media policy.

“We don’t monitor our kids’ sports-wagering activities,” Hagen said. “We tell them, ‘You can’t bet on sports.’ We send reminders. We send best practices during March Madness and the Super Bowl. We trust our kids, and we don’t believe that something is going to happen. It’s the same thing with social media. If we educate them and give them good tips, we will provide them with that freedom.”

Hagen decided against employing social-media monitoring software to track his student-athletes’ online presence. The monitoring services operate in several ways. One requires the turnover of usernames and passwords, while another requires an application to be installed on every account to be monitored. Another service simply monitors all that is publicly available.

The field continues to evolve.

“For us, we felt like it was too invasive,” Hagen said.

Janet Judge, the president of Sports Law Associates and an attorney who speaks to athletics groups about social media, said the use of monitoring services troubles her.

“Students share a lot on social media privately that coaches shouldn’t have access to,” she said. “But anything that is out there publicly is up for grabs. That’s a clear discussion to have with all student-athletes and coaches. If you’re not setting your privacy settings, then you have no one to blame but yourself.”

Georgia’s athletics department doesn’t have a blanket policy and doesn’t use software or require its student-athletes to turn over usernames or passwords. Associate Athletics Director for Compliance Jim Booz said each coach has his or her own policy, ranging from regulating content (for example, no posts about the team) to simply setting a clear expectation that student-athletes will not embarrass themselves, their family or the university through social media.

“We do monitor it, and we tell them we’re doing it,” Booz said. “We’re not going to bury our heads in the sand. But we try to educate them and help them think about things before they post them.”

To extricate themselves from potentially complicated or difficult situations, some compliance directors choose not to monitor student-athlete social media accounts directly. Trisha Turley Brandenburg, deputy athletics director at Towson, said she finds it just as effective to monitor local media, a tactic many of her colleagues employ as well. Local media members are likely to be in the social networks of the higher-profile student-athletes and often will repost comments from them.

McKinley also follows less-mainstream media such as fan sites and blogs, another good source for reposts of student-athlete tweets. Following boosters and fans is also effective, she said.

The most successful method of monitoring, McKinley found, is self-policing by student-athletes.

“They lay down the law with their teammates, and they aren’t afraid to come to us if they have to,” McKinley said. “We haven’t gotten to a point where we need to go to the next level.”

Different athletics departments will choose different methods of monitoring, but most compliance directors agree that ignoring social media completely is no longer an option. Keeping an eye on student-athletes with public social media accounts is within the bounds of even Delaware’s law.  

Booz said he looks at social media monitoring through the lens of NCAA rules (for example, recruiting contacts and boosters contacting prospects). With that in mind, creating a compliance Twitter account and following boosters, local businesses and general fans – and not only watching what they are posting but also sending educational messages – can help.

“We can’t monitor every single recruit’s account, and I can’t monitor every single booster or fan. But we use the mechanism to get a presence,” he said. “Athletics departments, and particularly compliance offices, if they don’t have a Twitter presence, they should try to establish one.”

Judge believes education is an excellent use of social media for athletics departments. And despite all the pitfalls with the medium, she’s a big fan.

“It does amazing things and will create connections between people,” she said. “Student-athletes are going to use it no matter what anybody thinks. Even with monitoring and Twitter bans, these students are always two steps ahead. They’ll create new accounts. Keeping a hold on social media is impossible. The more important issue is that this has provided us an incredible window to use for educational purposes.”