Policing the social media craze

Updated: May 1, 2012, 3:53 PM ET
By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

Nebraska coach Tim Miles tweets as freely and frequently as any college basketball coach in America.

He has few boundaries. He even tweets to his 14,000-plus followers in the middle of games.

Miles employs the same loose social media philosophy with his players. He expects sensible behavior but shuns the social media restrictions used by some of his colleagues around the country.

[+] EnlargeTim Miles
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireNew Nebraska coach Tim Miles, who tweets as frequently as any coach in the country, likes that the Cornhuskers have a safeguard in place to police social media activity.

So he admits it's somewhat ironic that he now coaches at a school that uses a social media service, Varsity Monitor, to police players' online activity.

"I'll probably be in trouble by the end of the month now," Miles joked. "I think it's probably ironic but I support the University of Nebraska in what they're doing. I understand that. And they do it for good reason. But at the same time, the message my guys are using, 'Hey, use your head.' It's nice to have a safeguard in place, too."

Varsity Monitor is among a smattering of services that have capitalized on the growth of social media and its popularity among college athletes in recent years.

Facebook has more than 900 million users. Twitter recently topped 140 million.

College athletes have latched onto the craze. Few avoid the outlets. For most, they're casual tools that rarely cause problems. But when the platforms become online sounding boards for emotional young adults, well, issues can arise.

College basketball coaches and athletic directors have dealt with a multitude of social media challenges in recent years.

Bill Self had to break up a Twitter fight between former Kansas star Tyshawn Taylor and critical fans in January. In November, former UConn forward Alex Oriakhi referred to his benching as "bs" and drew the negative headlines that petrify school officials, some of whom have banned social media use within their respective programs. Former Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury pulled his team's Twitter privileges last year after former guard Ravern Johnson blew off some steam through 140 characters.

Firms such as Varsity Monitor try to help schools corral that Internet behavior.

Varsity Monitor -- which has partnerships with Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas and Villanova -- offers schools a computer application that allows them to filter and identify problematic social media activity. They can search for a word, a phrase or a topic. Each school pays for a customized version of the product.

Their technology is even sophisticated enough to crack down on emerging Internet forums such as Instagram, a photo-based social media service recently purchased by Facebook.

Varsity Monitor founder Sam Carnahan said his client list has exploded in recent years, growth he attributes to the social media boom. (Carnahan said only a few of the schools his firm works with allow him to talk about their partnerships publicly.)

"It's no longer a handful," he said. "We've been on a real solid growth projection. It's substantial now across athletics, not just university athletic programs. But it's substantial."

UDiligence, a similar social media monitoring service that partners with 24 schools nationally, sends alert emails to athletes, coaches and other school officials when a potentially damaging post is discovered.

Kevin Long, the CEO of UDiligence, said universities reach out to his firm because they want to protect their brands and help athletes avoid the mistakes that can haunt them even after they leave school.

"Almost everybody has a cell phone now and you can access your accounts pretty much 24/7. Having that ability at your fingertips can lead to some moments where, maybe, you have some lapses in judgment in what you want to put out there," Long said. "Our hope is what we're doing is putting the athletes and the schools in the best position possible to help protect their reputations for the long term."

[+] EnlargeTrevor Mbakwe
AP Photo/Jim MoneTrevor Mbakwe's Facebook message to a woman ultimately resulted in his arrest last year. It's an extreme example of the dangers in social media.

Alan Cannon, associate athletic director of media relations at Texas A&M (one of UDiligence's clients), said social media has changed the daily conversations that compliance and sports information officials have with their student-athletes. Some athletes, he said, don't realize how quickly their "private" social media messages can become public.

"It used to be you would prep them for interviews with the various media outlets. Nowadays, you have to remind the young men and young ladies that with social media, that's an open forum as well," Cannon said. "You may think if you've set up your settings, this wouldn't make its way to a media outlet. But in all likelihood, it's going to find its way to a reporter or some media outlet."

Garry Bowman, sports information director at Minnesota, agreed.

Bowman said the extreme examples of social media's dangers shouldn't be overlooked.

He would know.

Last year, Gophers basketball star Trevor Mbakwe sent what he thought was an innocuous Facebook message to a woman that ultimately resulted in his arrest. Mbakwe's message allegedly violated a restraining order. After he was released from jail, he tweeted about the situation before his account was removed. He apologized for the entire incident and missed a start in his next game.

"They're the face of your program. It can be a minefield if there isn't proper education done and if your student-athletes aren't serious about using it in a positive way," Bowman said.

Minnesota, like most programs, relies on individual teams to inspect social media accounts.

But there are so many athletes. And the bulk of them possess instruments that allow them to broadcast messages and photos to people around the world before any authority can intercept them.

Last year, the NCAA cited North Carolina for failing to monitor social media activity after tweets by former North Carolina football player Marvin Austin led to an investigation and violations. While the NCAA doesn't have a blanket policy on social media, the North Carolina infractions case put many schools on alert.

"The monitoring and regulating of social networking sites are done on a campus level, although at times it can also serve as an information resource for NCAA enforcement staff investigators," said NCAA associate director or media and public relations Stacey Osburn via email. "It is up to each school to determine how it would like to manage social media."

Tennessee has avoided some of the larger social media gaffes that have spurred national news in recent years. And associate sports information director Tom Satkowiak hopes to maintain that streak. That's why he penned a list of "50 Twitter Tips for Student Athletes" for the CoSida website.

His tips include "If you wouldn't say something in a media interview, don't Tweet it" and "Don't allow a hater with 20 followers to bait you into a 'Twitter beef.'" Satkowiak said any social media guidelines may have seemed excessive a few years ago.

"I think three or four years ago, I think [schools] were aware that their student-athletes were using social media. They knew the kids were on Facebook. They knew they were on Twitter. But I don't know how involved they were getting," Satkowiak said. "And that's changed a lot just the past couple years."

The increased social media scrutiny throughout college athletics, however, has also prompted concerns about privacy. Some corporations have demanded Facebook and Twitter passwords from their employees. This year, Maryland passed a bill that blocks companies from requesting that information.

But critics worry that college athletes will face similar hurdles. To monitor an athlete's social media maneuvering, schools have to follow them or use a third-party service to accomplish the same task.

Carnahan and Long said their applications don't seek passwords. But their services require an athlete's permission to access their accounts.

Miles said he hopes he can trust his players and maintain his laid-back social media standard.

But he said he also knows that a "knucklehead" could abuse that policy in the future.

For now, however, Miles is more worried about his own tweets.

Nebraska uses Varsity Monitor to watch players online. But Miles said the extra filter could affect him, too.

"I've had some really funny stuff I haven't been able to post. I'll go to my staff and they'll say 'Don't do it, Coach. Don't do it,'" he said. "Certainly, you have to just think twice about what's out there, what you say and what you're representing."