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Extra Eyes For Athletics Staff

January 22, 2008

Digging through Facebook and MySpace: It's a hobby for students and a headache for college officials asked to search for potentially offensive content.

There's a new product on the market that offers athletics departments help tracking what their players are writing on the two most popular social networking sites. While many college officials said they are intrigued by the concept, some worry that the online technology could open institutions to new external criticism and be seen by students as invasive.

Billed as a social network monitoring service, YouDiligence scours the athletes' Facebook and MySpace pages for potentially hundreds of keywords and phrases -- involving profanity or drug innuendo, for instance -- that could be seen as damaging to the image of a student or an institution.

Colleges customize the program by choosing what kind of words should raise the red flag. When such language appears on an athlete's page, the designated college official receives an e-mail showing what was written, the name of the person involved and a link to that Web page. YouDiligence tracks only Facebook and MySpace, and it doesn't search for photographs, which have been at the center of recent sports initiation controversies involving college athletes.

Athletics departments have varying policies about the use of social networking sites, and some have entrusted a staff member with checking the content of the pages. Kevin Long, president of MVP Sports Media Training, which is marketing the product, said colleges need to realize that the networking sites aren't going away.

"We've heard athletics directors say, 'Man, if there was any way to monitor these pages more efficiently that'd be a great help,' " Long said. "They tell us, 'We didn't hire our assistants to look at MySpace pages.' Our message is instead of a hit-and-miss approach, checking once a semester, this becomes something that is much more regular."

Or, take this simple message from the YouDiligence advertisement, which features a shaggy-haired college student holding what can be inferred to be a beer bottle. "Do you know what your athletes are posting on Facebook and MySpace? We do!"

Long's company introduced YouDiligence, a product of GlobalNI, at the NCAA's annual convention trade show earlier this month. As of last week, no colleges had signed up to use the technology, though Long said dozens of athletics officials approached him at the event. The product costs athletics departments $250 per month, plus a $500 start-up fee.

Still, some aren't seeing the benefits of the monitoring service. Shawn McGuirk, director of student conduct, mediation and education at Fitchburg State College, in Massachusetts, said he's skeptical that colleges ask staff members to spend much or all of their day perusing social networking sites for danger, as YouDiligence literature suggests.

And he said he wouldn't want an outside agency monitoring what students at his college are doing.

"This whole thing sounds too much like Big Brother to me, at least with what little information I have to work with," McGuirk said in an e-mail.

Long said he understands the privacy concerns, but points out that the program only searches for what's in the public domain. It doesn't go behind firewalls or find ways to become someone's friend on Facebook, for instance. Long added that the program works as an early warning system, but doesn't give colleges policy recommendations.

As the promotional material states, "What you decide to do with that information is entirely up to you."

Pablo Malavenda, associate dean of students at Purdue University, who speaks regularly to first-year athletes about the dangers of posting to social networking sites, said the technology is a viable option for colleges, and could be viewed by some athletes as another layer of protection from inappropriate content posted about them or under their name.

Colleges, he said, need to better understand how their athletes are using the social networking sites in order for a tracking system to be worth their while. And because many students would view the technology as invasive, athletics officials would be smart to first initiate a discussion about the importance of portraying a positive online image, Malavenda said.

But McGuirk said the technology could raise more problems for colleges than it solves. What if a student threatens another person on a Facebook page and the tracking program doesn't pick it up? Will an upset parent say, "You said you monitor this.... How did this get missed?" she asked.

Bob Reno, publisher of badjocks.com, the Web site that published public domain photos of Northwestern University's women's soccer team initiation rituals and has exposed other college sports hazing incidents, agreed that a college could get into trouble if uncovered e-mail alerts from YouDiligence prove that the institution had notification of a threat and failed to act.

And there's no guarantee that the program will pick up the necessary information, he added. In the Northwestern case, the team pictures were posted on Webshots, an online photo-sharing site.

Reno said he's glad colleges will have another tool to detect potential problems, but that they need to focus more on creating and enforcing rules about athlete conduct. Chuck Mitrano, commissioner of Division III's Empire 8 league, who headed a panel about hazing at the NCAA convention, said that while the concept of the tracking technology is fine, "we need to be careful that instead of treating the symptoms of hazing, we're treating the illness."

Sarah Feyerherm, associate vice president for student affairs at Washington College, in Maryland, agreed that colleges can use the program as one tool, but should focus more on explaining to athletes why postings can be harmful.

And then there's the issue of fairness. Long said he would consider offering a similar product to colleges for security purposes -- to track potential threats against buildings or people -- or to market to student affairs for college-wide monitoring. But for now, the focus is on athletes. Is it fair to hold them to a higher standard of online posting?

"Athletes, you have to remember, have more privileges than other students," Malavenda said. "Many are on scholarship, and they know that they have more to lose and they can cause more harm to a university than most students. If they don't follow the rules, one of which is portraying their university in a positive way, they don't necessarily get punished, but they could lose some privileges."

Jake Streeter, chair of the NCAA Division II Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and a graduate assistant track coach at Adams State College, in Colorado, said he understands both the need for an athletics department to uphold its reputation, and the negative publicity that comes from "negative activities on the part of student-athletes."

The SAAC hasn't taken a stance on tracking technology, but among its guidelines on posting to social networking sites are that athletes should eliminate their phone numbers and addresses, and ask friends to delete pictures of them that they deem "inappropriate."

Streeter said in an e-mail that "I also know that for the vast majority of student-athletes, college is a time of growth and maturation -- philosophically, economically, and socially -- and that such blatant and exhaustive surveillance can run counter to said growth."

Colleges, he added, would be better served with a "candid, proactive policy for MySpace/Facebook activity rather than a stopgap measure such as this."

 

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