Athletic departments get free rein with social media

In less than 140 characters, many student-athletes have found out they can put their program at risk of breaking NCAA rules.
April 03, 2012

Social media networks have evolved quicker than policies to govern them in college athletics.

Some schools have banned student-athletes from using social media. Of those that allow it, some have hired third parties to track use. It’s all because the NCAA has no all-encompassing policy on the swelling business.

As sites like Twitter and Facebook continue to grow in popularity, the NCAA has warned programs against violating recruiting bylaws via the sites. In rare cases, it has penalized schools for not monitoring a student-athlete’s account activity closely enough.

The University of Minnesota’s athletics department has committed three minor secondary violations in the past year on Twitter, according to department spokesman Garry Bowman. In each case, athletics staff or student-athletes made reference to potential football recruits who had not yet signed letters of intent, Bowman said.

“I’ve got people that are assigned to check [our players’ social media accounts],” Gophers head football coach Jerry Kill said. “But are we going to catch everything? Probably not. We’re talking about 115 football players we have to keep track of.”

Minor violations like Minnesota’s are commonplace around the NCAA. As recently as last month, athletics departments at schools like the University of Michigan, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Tennessee committed secondary NCAA violations when current players congratulated possible recruits on signing with the team or visiting campus via social media.

Programs are restricted from making comments before signing players, according to an NCAA bylaw. That includes comments made by any representative of the institution, including student-athletes. A separate bylaw prohibits a school from publicizing the campus visit of a recruit.

Student-athletes across the country use social media just as regular college students do. But those bylaws dictate what they can and can’t say about their respective sport.

“Coach Kill is an in-house type of guy,” senior linebacker Keanon Cooper said. “He doesn’t want [players posting] anything football-related. That was the mistake I made when I first got here — I posted something about football and kind of got in trouble for it.”

Cooper, who uses Twitter and Facebook sparingly, said Kill goes above and beyond teaching about the possible dangers of discussing football on social media.

“The main thing he says [is] when you’re on [social media], be respectful and be mindful that you’re representing yourself, your family and the University of Minnesota,” Cooper said.

Fifth-year senior Troy Stoudermire didn’t exercise that caution before being suspended for a game by former Gophers football coach Tim Brewster in September 2010.

The then-junior wide receiver posted to his Facebook account that he was “no longer a gopher [and] ready to take my talent to a top d-1 school where I will be appreciated and respected as a player!”

Stoudermire had not informed anyone at Minnesota he had plans to leave the team, a football spokesman said at the time.

Monitoring social media

Penalties for secondary violations like Minnesota’s are rarely given when the issue does not affect the player’s recruitment or give the schools involved a competitive advantage.

But the University of North Carolina was banned from the 2012-13 football postseason after a lengthy NCAA investigation found acts of academic fraud and players receiving impermissible benefits.

Among other accusations, the NCAA Committee on Infractions condemned UNC for “not consistently monitoring the social networking activity of its student-athletes,” according to a 38-page infractions report by the committee.

The report, released March 12, alleges that a social media account of a student-athlete “contained information that, if observed, would have alerted the institution to some of the violations.”

However, in a teleconference with members of the infractions committee, chair Britton Banowsky said it still wasn’t a school’s duty to monitor the social media sites of student-athletes, the Daily Tar Heel reported.

“The committee wants to be clear that, while there will be times where social media is an important tool for discovering violations, the committee is not imposing a blanket duty on member schools to monitor social networking sites,” Banowsky said in the teleconference, according to the Tar Heel.

Since last fall, when UNC had its hearing with the infractions committee, it decided to hire a third-party company, Varsity Monitor, to keep track of its hundreds of student-athlete’s social media accounts.

“We work with athletic departments to help educate the student-athletes on the best ways to use social media,” Sam Carnahan, CEO of Varsity Monitor, told the Minnesota Daily. “In addition, we look for indiscretions related to either behavioral or compliance issues, which are reported back to the school.”

Along with UNC, the Universities of Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas have used Varsity Monitor’s services to keep track of their student-athletes, according to its website.

Social media is a tough medium to keep tabs on, and the problem stems from universities “friending” or demanding access to a student-athlete’s account for monitoring, Carnahan said.

Because of privacy concerns, proposed legislation in Maryland aims to recognize the legal privacy rights of a student’s social media account.

One of the first of its kind in recognizing privacy rights in respect to students and social media, the bill was unanimously passed in the Maryland Senate on March 14. It could prevent the University of Maryland from requiring any student, including athletes, to provide information or access to social media accounts.

Self-regulating

In lieu of an NCAA policy, programs may choose to have a third-party help monitor student-athletes’ social media accounts. But more often, schools have left it up to the coaches to decide.

“When our student-athletes first enroll, there are broad rules given to them about social media,” said Steve Roe, associate director of sports information at the University of Iowa. “But we leave it up to the sport’s coaching staff to decide on their own set of regulations.”

Minnesota’s athletics department chooses to educate its roughly 750 student-athletes on proper social media use, and it leans away from banning the sites — like how Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz barred his football team from Twitter.

“I think it is about the maturation process and becoming an adult,” Bowman, Minnesota’s spokesman, said. “This is a university setting. It is all about learning.”

Over the past five years, Minnesota has incorporated social media into the media training that each of the 25 varsity sports programs go through at the beginning of their seasons.

For Gophers football, Kill said it’s all about letting his players know the power their social media accounts have in reflecting who they are.

“We educate them on what it has the potential to do,” Kill said. “If someone wants to hire you in the business world … or draft you in the NFL and there’s something on your [social-media account] that doesn’t reflect well, that will stop you from getting hired.”

Kill said his staff checks recruits’ social media accounts to see if offering a scholarship could prove problematic.

“It’s a young person’s world,” Kill said. “It’s not going to change. They just need to know how to monitor it and make sure they understand that what you put on there could cost them their career, reputation and opportunities.”

Although Kill doesn’t personally have a Twitter account, he said there are positives to social media. It’s a matter of knowing what’s right and what’s wrong, he said.

The team’s starting quarterback from last season, MarQueis Gray, who has been through two head coaches, said the athletics department has given the players free rein on the sites since he’s been at the University and that he’s had no trouble with it.

“I use [social media], but I just use it to joke around with my teammates,” Gray said. “I’m one of the guys that knows what’s right and what’s wrong.”

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