COLUMBIA – Social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter have made student athletes more accessible than ever.
The 140-character limit on Twitter might not necessarily encourage a meaningful discourse, but things as simple as an athlete checking in while on vacation or a fan telling a recruit why he should commit to his favorite school can still make an impact.
Increasingly, that impact can be problematic. From players to coaches to fans, 140 characters is often all that's necessary to catch the watchful eye of the NCAA.
On July 21, the University of North Carolina received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA detailing a litany of violations committed by their athletics programs. Among them was the failure to “adequately and consistently monitor social networking activity” by student athletes that should have caused the school to discover other violations sooner than they did.
The implication seen by many in the NCAA's ruling – that athletic departments should be going through the entirety of their student athletes' social networking pages for potential violations – is troublesome for officials like Mitzi Clayton, MU's assistant athletics director for compliance. Clayton said she views such rigorous monitoring as an unattainable goal.
"What has come out of the North Carolina Notice of Allegations is a bit concerning to a lot of compliance officers around the nation," Clayton said. "In order to adequately monitor over 500 accounts on a routine, daily basis, that could easily be a job for one person."
Instead, compliance at MU continues to rely on the system already in place. Individual programs are tasked with monitoring the social networking activities of athletes, a practice once primarily concerned with potential image issues that may now focus more heavily on looking for potential violations.
The football program, for example, uses a computer program called UDiligence. Designed primarily to protect student athletes from damaging the reputations of themselves and their schools, UDiligence searches for trigger words in student activity and alerts team officials when any red flags pop up. Other sports opt for a simpler approach, and a captain or coach frequently checks on posts from the team's players.
Despite the findings in the North Carolina Notice of Allegations, Cameron Schuh, associate director of public and media relations for the NCAA, said the organization simply recommends that schools check on the social networking sites of their athletes. He could not speak specifically about the North Carolina case as the investigation is still ongoing.
“The NCAA does not mandate member institutions monitor social network sites affiliated with the institution, but institutions are encouraged to do so,” Schuh said in an e-mail. “Their oversight can only help ensure individuals associated with the institution (i.e. staff, student-athletes, etc.) are not violating NCAA rules nor jeopardizing the eligibility of student-athletes on these platforms.”
In addition to the responsibility of keeping an eye on those athletes already enrolled in a college or university, the compliance department must deal with the NCAA's constantly evolving stance on technological advancements in regards to recruiting.
Text messaging recruits was banned in 2007. Contacting recruits via Facebook message is permissible, but contacting them through the chat function is not. Allowable contact via Twitter becomes impermissible if the recruit receives text message updates from Twitter.
In an interview with KOMU, Tim Fuller, an assistant basketball coach at Missouri, cited fan engagement with transfer students Earnest Ross and Keion Bell on Twitter as a factor in their decision to play for Missouri. At the same time, the NCAA has informed schools that anyone affiliated with their university, including boosters and fans, would incur a violation for contacting recruits via social networking websites.
With Missouri's sizable fan base, ensuring that no single rotten apple spoils the bunch is a tall task. Clayton said the only way the compliance department can work to prevent disallowed contact from people outside the scope of the athletic department is by keeping them informed on the changing NCAA regulations.
"We use education as a means of controlling that," she said. "On mutigers.com, we've got information for fans and boosters of the program that help them understand how they should and should not interact with recruits."
Many schools think the NCAA's regulations surrounding social media are overly rigid. The Southeastern Conference submitted a letter of proposed rule changes to the NCAA in June including the allowance of text messaging recruits.
The conference also proposed in its letter the elimination of a rule that requires "friend" and "follow" requests to coaches and athletic administrators on Facebook and Twitter to go through compliance before they can be accepted.