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College coaches finding ways to monitor athletes' social networking activity

Thursday, May 13, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CDT
With coaches becoming increasingly wary about what their athletes might be posting on social networking sites, groups that monitor athlete activity on such sites have found a niche.

COLUMBIA – During Kim English’s freshman season on the Missouri men’s basketball team, he quickly became one of team’s most popular players among MU students. One reason was his accurate 3-point stroke. Another was his interaction with fans on Twitter.

English responded to tweets from students and fans and even messaged some of them on his own. His updates – usually a handful each hour – brought his followers into his life. He shared his thoughts on the basketball team, his classes, social issues … anything. And his updates were full of humor, wit and opinion.

For fans, it was fun.

Mike Anderson, English’s coach, didn’t like it.

“He doesn’t like Twitter,” English said.

On Dec. 10, during the middle of his sophomore season, English vanished from the Twittersphere. He deactivated his account, leaving 2,500 followers wondering why he left.  

At the time, English said he had been receiving too many negative messages after Missouri losses, but there was another likely explanation.

Anderson directs his players not to use Twitter during the season, team spokesman Dave Reiter said in an e-mail. Shortly after axing his Twitter account, English said he wasn’t forced to get off. Maybe he was “asked,” but Anderson makes his expectations clear.

“I think as your guys are getting more and more involved in (Twitter), then I think it takes away what they’re doing (on the court), the focus anyway,” Anderson said in December.

The day after the team’s season ended, English returned to Twitter. He’s back in full swing, full of flavor, sending out dozens of entertaining updates a day and conversing with followers.

He’ll have to enjoy it while he can.

Other coaches share Anderson’s approach, but it’s one a handful of college athletics departments are using to prevent social networking from not distracting their athletes but also jeopardizing their teams’ images.

The latter was a concern for Texas football coach Mack Brown in November 2008.

On the night of the presidential election, Buck Burnette, a center for Texas, posted a racially charged comment on his Facebook page. According to the Houston Chronicle, it read, “All the hunters gather up, we have a (racial slur) in the White House,” referring to President Barack Obama becoming the first African-American U.S. President.

Brown dismissed Burnette from the team the next day.

Comments don’t have to be as serious as Burnette’s to catch coaches off-guard.

Last spring, former Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon challenged English to see who could get 2,000 Twitter followers first. It was a good-humored competition between fellow athletes, but that’s not how one of Weatherspoon’s tweets came off last summer.

After a summer football practice, Weatherspoon updated his Twitter with the following: “50 days until I squeeze the pulp out of Juice.” He was referring to quarterback Juice Williams from Illinois, the Tigers’ first opponent of the season.

Harmless, right?

“As a PR person, you’re first thought is, ‘Oh no,’” said Chad Moller, MU’s assistant athletics director for media relations, as he put his head down.

The update was quickly posted on the Internet and shown on ESPN.

“It was a perfect example that we can use going forward for everyone to understand,” Moller said. “He was just joking, he was just having fun, but guess what, when that runs on the BottomLine of ESPN in July over the summer and there’s no one there to talk and explain it, it just looks like, ‘Wow, look at this guy. He’s mouthing off.’”

The chances of a social networking blunder are greater now than ever, simply because more college athletes are using sites such as Twitter and Facebook, says Kevin Long, founder and CEO of UDiligence, a service that monitors social networking activity of college athletes for their coaches.

Long estimates that now, 95 percent of college athletes have a Facebook page.

That's one of the reasons business is good for UDiligence, which is capitalizing on the paranoia within college athletics departments that has grown since the birth of social networking.

“As a PR person, I’m not a big fan of social media,” MU's Moller said. “… For the life of me I don’t understand why people want everyone to know what they’re up to 24 hours a day.”

Thanks to Long’s company, Moller doesn’t have to spend each one of those hours supervising Missouri’s football players on the Internet.

UDiligence uses computers to automatically search athletes’ Facebook, Twitter and MySpace pages for any of the 414 racy words that compose a list created by members of Long’s college fraternity. If the system finds one, a member of the client’s staff receives an e-mail notification, and the team deals with it from there.

With UDiligence, Long took a task that was long, inefficient and quite possibly humanly impossible and turned it over to a computer.

Expecting a human being to be able to catch every red flag on more than 100 players’ (in the case of the Missouri football team) social networking pages is, well, naive.

“It’s like throwing a dart at a dartboard after shutting off the lights and turning around a few times,” Long said.

The blinded dart thrower

Long said Missouri is one of the few schools where only one team partners with UDiligence. He said most of the couple dozen schools UDiligence works with buy the service for each of their teams.

At Missouri, how (or if) teams monitor players on the Internet is up to each coach. Most Missouri teams don’t have nearly as many athletes as the football team, making human monitoring more realistic.

Still, we are imperfect beings, which makes Melisa Johnston the Missouri soccer team’s blinded dart thrower. Johnston, the team’s director of operations, manually scans the Facebook pages of the team’s players every other week. Because she has about 20 players to get through, Johnston said she doesn’t spend a long time on each player’s page.

The team’s method might not be as efficient as UDiligence’s service, but Blitz said it’s working.

“I think they police themselves now because they know we’re going to get on there (Facebook),” Blitz said.

How many inappropriate posts does Johnston find?

“Nothing anymore,” Blitz said, laughing. “We tell everybody, and they know about it and they get checked. Now it’s easy. It’s a no-brainer. Now it’s more education when they come in as freshmen. They know we’re going to be on there. Basically, since we’re going to be on there, they’re smart about what they do.”

It’s all public

At the beginning of the two weeks she spends teaching social media in her public speaking class at Loyola University in Chicago, Sue Castorino projects “less than flattering” pictures of her students onto a screen.

“Their eyes were the size of saucers,” she said.

“How did you do that?” they ask her.

Castorino teaches that anyone can go onto Facebook and find photos or written posts that you wouldn’t want a potential employer to see. Or your coach.

In addition to teaching, Castorino is president of The Speaking Specialists, a media training company she runs with her husband, Randy Minkoff. One group the company works with is college athletes. Castorino and Minkoff train athletes at universities across the country – including Missouri – on public image awareness.

Castorino and Minkoff's visit to the University of Kansas last fall might have come just a bit too late. In late September, a fight broke out between members of the school’s football and men’s basketball teams. The incident was a disaster for the athletics department and the university, and word of it spread on Facebook.

“Keep my name out ya' mouth for you get smacked in it,” basketball player Tyshawn Taylor posted on his Facebook page the morning of the day of the fight, as reported by the Kansas City Star.

After the fight, Taylor made several posts containing racial slurs and indicated he was ready to fight back. The dislocated finger Taylor injured from throwing a punch was even first reported on … his own Facebook page.

“Let’s put it this way,” Castorino said of her visit to Kansas right after the incident. “We had a real nice, long talk about it.”

The fight would have made the news without Taylor’s posts, but he made it impossible for Kansas to keep the details private. Within hours, before the school had any chance to make an official statement, details of the incident were all over the Internet for anyone to read.

In January, the Lawrence Journal-World reported that Taylor deleted his Facebook page. The newspaper suspected that Kansas coach Bill Self told Taylor to stop using the site after Taylor, according to the newspaper, hinted on Facebook he was considering leaving KU.

“It won’t be a problem from this point forward. Ever,” Self told the Journal-World.

Situations like Taylor's are why Castorino and Long have successful and growing companies. Coaches might not know how Facebook or Twitter work, but they know the sites can be trouble for the image of their teams.

“Let me tell you, they do worry about it because the last thing any of them wants is to have some issue pop up that starts out as an innocent comment by (a player) that turns into a major catastrophe from a PR standpoint,” Long said.

What about free speech?

College athletes, like any college student, enjoy social networking. And there’s such a thing as free speech.  

Brown, the Texas football coach, told The Associated Press in September that he thought it would be against the law to ban players from social networking sites, so he encouraged his players not to use Twitter.

Sandy Davidson, an MU adjunct associate professor of law who teaches communications law to journalism students and serves as the Missourian’s attorney, emphasized that being a college athlete is a privilege and not a right. Just as employers can restrict the way their employees participate in social networking, so can college coaches.

Not surprisingly, the athletics department’s social networking policy – contained in its Student-Athlete Handbook – starts with the privilege vs. right explanation: “Participation in intercollegiate athletics at the University of Missouri is a privilege, not a right.”

The policy continues:

“While the Athletic Department does not prohibit student-athlete involvement with Internet-based social networking communities, this high standard of honor and dignity encompasses comments and postings made to Internet sites.

The Athletic Department reserves the right to take any action against any currently enrolled student-athlete engaged in behavior that violates University, Department, or team rules, including such behavior that occurs in postings on the Internet.

This action may include education, counseling, team suspension, termination from the varsity team and reduction or non-renewal of any athletic scholarships.”

Davidson said a college athlete would have a hard time arguing that the First Amendment right to free speech renders any type of social networking rule unconstitutional. The case could change, Davidson said, if the rule were vague or if a player didn’t know about the rule.

Although she hasn't searched for one, she doesn’t know of any precedent for a case involving college athletes and social networking, and she’s not sure one will ever occur.

“Would you find any attorney who would be willing to take that kind of case?” she asked, followed by a long pause. “You have to be able to argue that there has been a wrong for which there is a legal remedy.”

Rick McGuire: The anti-UDiligence

Rick McGuire is the type of coach Long and UDiligence want to convince of the mess social networking can create.

But for McGuire, a teamwide understanding of the behavior that builds a positive reputation is all he needs. McGuire, the 27-year Missouri track and field coach who’s retiring after this season, trusts his athletes to be responsible on social networking sites.

It’s the opposite approach to hiring UDiligence.

“That would be contrary to (the team’s) philosophy,” said Mitzi Clayton, Missouri’s assistant athletics director for compliance.

McGuire doesn’t assign a staff member to scan through athletes’ pages. He simply leaves it up to the team’s 10 captains to talk to a teammate when they notice something on the Internet that shouldn’t be there. McGuire doesn’t instruct his captains to look for irresponsible posts, and he hasn’t spoken to his team about social networking since addressing it once and for all several years ago.

One of his captains, fifth-year senior and distance runner Ellen Ries, said McGuire’s message is to be smart and for athletes to represent the team and themselves in a positive manner. When someone makes a mistake, Ries said it’s up to her or the other captains to do something about it. It’s more of an understanding than a policy.

“If we see something come up, we send someone a message and say, ‘Hey, that might not be the most appropriate thing. Maybe take it down or have your privacy settings set so that only your friends can see it,’” said Ries, who has had to send that message only once or twice.

The system works just fine for the team, McGuire said.

The department trains all Missouri athletes on social networking behavior, regardless of training they receive from their teams.

The athletes hear about it from multiple people, including Athletics Director Mike Alden and Clayton and the compliance staff, who are in charge of ensuring athletes follow NCAA rules.

They can attend optional workshops, one of which has a station devoted to social networking that is run by Kim Martin, the director of the department’s Life Skills program. Players log onto their Facebook pages and learn what a potential employer would take from the page.

Some teams also bring in Castorino and Minkoff to conduct their training. Castorino said some college athletes struggle with the idea that they are public figures. Even if they understand that, most of them aren’t aware that their Facebook profiles are public.

“That’s always been an eye-opener for the athletes,” Castorino said. “By setting privacy controls, they think only their friends can see their pages.”

Before presenting to college athletes, Castorino does a little digging online and shows them what she found on their pages, producing another one of those saucer-eye reactions.

Peek into future of paranoia

Eliminating similar reactions for coaches has Long thinking that all schools will eventually buy UDiligence.

“They have to,” he said. “The potential for problems is out there, and they need to do something (to monitor).”

Considering how social networking has evolved over the past five years, it’s impossible to know exactly how monitoring systems will change.

One indicator, though, has to give Long reassurance that automated monitoring will only become more widespread.

“At some schools, they (have us monitor) the cheerleaders and the mascots,” he said.


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