Athletic departments are often in the unenviable position of having to monitor the social media feeds of their student-athletes. Departments don’t do this out of a desire to invade privacy but to watch for NCAA compliance violations that might get both athlete and school in trouble. This creates a difficult situation wherein the institution must respect the privacy and free speech rights of the student but also protect against problematic infractions.
This conflict was in the news as recently as last week when two Middle Tennessee State University football players were dismissed from the team following allegations around animal cruelty. A video posted on social media has led to an arrest of one of the players and a mess for the MTSU athletic department. However, as bad of a look as it was for MTSU, their diligence in social media monitoring might have assuaged some of the damage. Athletic Director Chris Massaro is pleased with how his compliance team watches social media, but acknowledges it is a growing struggle, “Right now our (compliance) department is doing the best it can with the resources we have. We could even see a third party monitor social media.”
Such third parties are gaining momentum with colleges. UDiligence and Varsity Monitor are two such services available today that allow coaches and administrators to keep an eye on what their charges are saying in hopes of being ahead of any issues that might affect player eligibility. As described by Varsity Monitor founder Sam Carnahan, “A simple word, which isn’t a bad word and certainly isn’t a banned word, is the word ‘free.’ Athletes can’t be receiving benefits, so something as simple as saying, ‘Had free meal at Champs last night,’ could essentially be a minor violation and something that needs to be addressed.”
However, in the eyes of many, this watchdogging is dangerously close to an invasion of privacy and censorship of free speech. In situations where student-athletes must give-up passwords and user logins, some feel schools cross the line. An alternative to being quite so forceful is for student-athletes to allow coaches to follow or “friend” them online so that athletic department officials can see what is being posted. In either situation, athletic departments are coercing student-athletes into a social media connection they might not otherwise foster.
Regardless of the depth to which your athletic department wants to delve in student-athlete social media, there are real world examples of schools and players getting busted for violations as a result of ill-advised posts. Most schools don’t have the budget to employ a full-time social media compliance officer while others want to trust their students to do the right thing without watching over their shoulders. In either case, as MTSU showed by being just the most recent example, social media is a force that requires responsibility and oversight to avoid hugely-problematic situations for an athletic department.