Student-Athletes and Social Media Monitoring: A Conversation With Varsity Monitor

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Varsity Monitor logo

Varsity Monitor is one of several new services available to colleges and universities looking to track the social media activities of their student-athletes.

Social media monitoring of student-athletes is quickly becoming a hot potato among the NCAA, college coaches, administrators, lawyers and legislators.

Despite a recent NCAA ruling some believe puts this matter to rest, more questions remain. Who governs this space? Where does the law stand on privacy and litigation around potential negligent social media monitoring?

I won’t deny these are all major concerns, and I’ll be covering them in an upcoming piece on FourthAnd140.com. But I thought it was a good time to hear from one of the pioneers in this space, so you can understand what we mean by social media monitoring at the university level.

Varsity Monitor was one of the first to provide this kind of service at all levels.  Here’s a brief conversation the fine folks at Varsity Monitor had recently with FourthAnd140.com about the services they provide – and the issues they face.

F140: What does Varsity Monitor do?

VM: Varsity Monitor provides social media monitoring of athletes’ social media activities, both within their personal accounts as well as what other people are saying about them online. We have proprietary technology to scan and filter for specific content, and everything we do is within the framework of the social media TOS [terms of service] and is permission-based. We take the privacy of the athletes we work with very seriously.

F140: Who uses your service?

VM: Athletic departments, compliance and coaches. Our clients include Oklahoma University, University of Texas football, University of North Carolina, University of Nebraska and Villanova University.

F140: Why is there a need for social media monitoring of NCAA athletes?

VM: Social media introduces new challenges for athletic departments. For example, every athletic department has a code of conduct, what do they do about social media? Does it make sense to have a code of conduct with no plan to make it a reality? A way to confirm the rules are being followed? That’s where Varsity Monitor comes in. We provide them with tools to address this new challenge.

F140: How so?

VM: For college athletic departments, it’s about preparing the SA [student-athlete] for life after college/sports, while protecting their institution’s brand. The misuse of social media by athletes can negatively affect the brand of the school, in the process harming the athletes’ post-athlete employment opportunities. On the flip side, proper use of social media cannot only enhance the school’s brand profile but also make the athlete more marketable after graduation.

F140: What technology powers Varsity Monitor?

VM: We have developed proprietary technology that is able to scan, aggregate and filter social media content created about and by the athletes.

F140: Wouldn’t banning the use of social media by student-athletes just solve these issues?

VM: Banning is not the answer. In addition to our monitoring services, [Varsity Monitor] offers advanced administrator and SA education to help everyone use social media in a constructive way. By banning social media, you are limiting the skill set of your athletes for jobs in marketing/sales after sports and also limiting the potential upside of the use of Twitter and Facebook. We understand why people ban, but those who work with Varsity Monitor are able to use education, monitoring and enforcement, thereby managing the social media behavior without the need for bans.

F140: What does VM do when you find questionable information? How do you handle it?

VM: We treat all information observed as confidential. We never publicize it or use if for commercial gain. We attempt to keep negative posts/image-destroying information from reaching a larger audience. Finally, and most importantly, we educate the individual on the positive use of social media, discussing how it can impact one’s personal and professional life.

F140: What other services are provided by Varsity Monitor?

VM: We scan for positive content and examples of highly effective ways to use social media, so administrators can demonstrate to others the best way to take advantage of social media.

F140: What sets Varsity Monitor apart?

VM: First and foremost, we believe monitoring is a tool to be used to educate. That’s our mantra. Second, we treat all information observed as confidential. We have very strict guidelines on how this information is handled and managed. We listen to our customers, providing a flexible service designed to adapt to meet the unique demands of our clients.
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Regardless of your opinion of social media monitoring services like Varsity Monitor, I believe they’re here to stay. Can they improve? Yes. And since they’re moving from an NCAA mandated-driven tool to a service-driven model, the focus should remain on student safety, education and personal branding. As I’ve argued in the past, this is a time of great learning for student-athletes, and their coaches and administrators should take advantage of these teaching moments.

However, college sports is also big business. Athletic departments are wise to manage their online reputations, which includes monitoring social media activities – just like many Fortune 500 brands do today. (This is part of what I do for a living.) You can’t ever control the message, but you can monitor and react to it. And you can teach those in your organization to use social media safely, properly and effectively – to the benefit of everyone.

What do you think of social media monitoring services like Varsity Monitor? Leave your comments here, or hit me up on Twitter. I’ll continue to cover this topic because I’m passionate about it.

Thanks for being a fan.

NCAA Fails To Lead (Again) on Social Media Policy

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The NCAA passes the buck on social media policy and monitoring. Again.

Let’s get this out of the way: Social media is here to stay. A recent Nielsen study shows we’re spending a quarter of our online time on social networks.

Will it change shape in the years ahead? Of course.

In society, people connect in new ways here. In business, companies reach new customers here. And in athletics, teams and athletes discover new ways to meet their fans here.

As I’ve noted previously on Fourth and 140, social media is a space ripe for opportunity – and disappointment. It needs leaders who take risks but do things the right way, with honor and authenticity. We’re seeing some professional athletes, teams and leagues exhibit leadership as social media matured in 2011. And I expect more leaders – and posers – to emerge in 2012.

Unfortunately, the NCAA remains behind the times – and continues to pass on the opportunity to make social media a safe, productive and learning place for its student-athletes and their teams.

Earlier this month, the Missoulian reported the NCAA’s plans – or lack of plans – “to pen an official policy that would punish student-athletes for the misuse of social media sites, like Twitter, anytime in the near future.”

Add this to the already growing pile of disappointing decisions and lack of action by the NCAA. The latest news came in the wake Lehigh wide receiver Ryan Spadola’s suspension for re-tweeting a message containing a racial slur.

The Missoulian’s reporting uncovered a two newsworthy items. First, the NCAA does not have the staff or budget to monitor student-athletes’ activities on Twitter, Facebook or other social sites. Second, and more importantly, the NCAA openly passes the buck on creating social media policies to its member institutions and leagues.

Disappointing. Again.

“Schools, institutions and conferences have their own guidelines in place for social media,” Schuh told the Missoulian. “The monitoring of social media is done on an institutional basis, on each campus. Some coaches say do whatever you want and some say don’t use it. That’s a school or a conference’s decision. They are the ones charged with overseeing those outlets.”

I’m OK with putting social media monitoring on schools. That makes sense. What’s irresponsible and a missed opportunity is failing to create guidelines and rules that govern these schools – and their athletes – in social media. I’ve argued before about the NCAA’s need for a social media policy, but it appears now the NCAA has no immediate plans to craft an official one.

The lack of leadership here is stunning, and allows the NCAA to cherry-pick schools and athletes who make very obvious and public missteps. In other words, it’s the easy way out.

What takes more work, courage and leadership would be establishing a committee of leaders – in athletics and in social media – to craft a credible set of guidelines for schools and student-athletes to follow. It would provide an ideal teaching moment for students to learn about social media.

Need a place to start, NCAA? Check out the NHL’s comprehensive social media policy. Read any of the hundreds of corporate social media policies available online. Ask your member colleges and universities or leagues. Start the conversation.

Until then, arbitrary action and lack of leadership will continue to make social media a confusing, dangerous and intimidating space for both NCAA teams and – more importantly – student-athletes.

Thanks for being a fan.

The NCAA Needs Social Media Guidelines

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NCAA's logo

The NCAA needs to be clearer with its member schools on how to monitor social media activity of student-athletes.

How can you punish someone for doing something that’s not against the rules?

Just ask Dick Baddour. He’s the athletic director at the University of North Carolina.

This week, Baddour released the university’s response to a long list of NCAA violations that have ensnared the Tarheel football program for more than a year. In its self-imposed sanctions, UNC voluntarily vacated 16 wins and gave up nine scholarships during a three-year period. The university will also fork over $50,000 in fines and spend two years on probation.

It’s all deserved. Well, almost all of it.

In its report, the NCAA dinged the university’s football program for failure to “adequately and consistently monitor social networking activity that visibly illustrated potential amateurism violations within the football program” that delayed the discovery of the improper benefits received by players, according to the FayObserver.

Small problem. The NCAA doesn’t have member guidelines for monitoring “social networking activity.” It does vaguely cover the topic of social networking as it relates to recruiting, but is silent on how schools should keep tabs on NCAA student-athletes who choose to use Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

Silent. Zip. Nothing.

I don’t get it. Like I said, how can you get in trouble for something that’s not against the rules? Baddour agrees, and rightfully disputed that charge in UNC’s response.

“We accept responsibility for what we have done,” Baddour told the news media. “But we debated that, and decided we had done what was expected of us, or what could be expected of us. We didn’t feel like we could give in on that point.”

Good for him. And good for the university.

It’s time for the NCAA to bring to light not just what’s expected – but what’s required – of its member schools and their athletes as it relates to social media. It’s time for a real social media policy.

I argued this point recently as it relates to colleges and universities. The schools should be training their student-athletes on how to use social media properly. But it’s hard to do so when the NCAA has not weighed in on the subject fully.

It’s time. Heck, it’s past due. The NCAA needs well-defined social guidelines. Only then will student-athletes understand what’s expected of them, and only then will colleges and universities be able to properly monitor those student-athletes.

What social media guidelines do you think the NCAA should adopt? Leave a comment below. I’ll include them in a future blog post here at FourthAnd140.com.

Thanks for being a fan.