Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Dark Side of Social Media and College Athletics

image Earlier today IBCR featured a column on the difficulties of enforcing NCAA rules and monitoring social media networking technology such as Twitter and Facebook.There is significant potential for rules violations that could get schools in trouble and affect the eligibility of a student-athlete, and there is a high likelihood that ordinary fans don’t have any idea that they are actually harming their school by trying to help.

Everyone should just leave recruiting to the coaches authorized to make contact with prospects.

But in doing the research homework leading up to the earlier post, IBCR found a Dark Side of student-athlete and prospect engagement on Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks.

Recall the hypothetical scenario of a top college football prospect with active Twitter and Facebook accounts. But instead of having naive but well-meaning fans and boosters inadvertently breaking NCAA rules by encouraging him to enroll at their favorite school, there are fans who know the rules quite well and who know exactly what they’re doing. They’re setting out to “poison the well” by pretending to be representatives of the rival athletics program’s interest. In other instances found by IBCR, rival fans have exploited the fact that a prospect or student-athlete has not yet created a Twitter or Facebook account, created a fictitious one, and promptly began sending out embarrassing updates.

In one case, an obviously fake account for a high profile current student-athlete purported to show the student-athlete holding a large amount of cash. In another, the fake account bragged of acquiring an expensive new vehicle. In yet another, several Twitter accounts purporting to be fans of one school actually turned out to be operated by fans of a heated rival, who bragged about their own exploits on an “insider’s” message board. In the 2011 recruitment of at least two prospective student-athletes, what appeared to be the accounts of fans of one school turned out to be fans of another, and the operators of those accounts openly and brazenly campaigned for the prospect to sign with the rival school with fake offers of impermissible benefits that included jewelry, electronics and suggesting sexual favors might be gained (ed note: Under advice of counsel, the student-athletes, schools and prospects will not be named here and all information has been forwarded to the schools’ compliance offices, the NCAA and the conference compliance offices).

How in the world does a compliance office wrap its arms around that?

Jon Solomon’s article in today’s Birmingham News highlights the start-up of Centrix Social, a firm with software technology designed to mine for and identify these types of activities and alert school officials when something appears to be a problem. While that technology holds the promise of knowing early-on that foul play is afoot, there doesn’t appear to be a way to actually prevent that from happening, short of the draconian measures of preventing student-athletes from using Social Media—a step with significant implications on free speech and conjuring up notions of “Big Brother” invading and limiting the freedom of student-athletes to associate. Even more problematic is the fact that the school has no control whatsoever over a prospect’s access to social media.

With no way to prevent Dark Side offenders from trying to poison the well, and no readily available means of positively identifying offenders or punishing them, the Dark Side appears to be a much more difficult problem to tackle. Compliance offices with effective programs of social media monitoring and education of fans and student-athletes will, hopefully, make it much easier to spot Dark Side offenders. As monitoring programs grow in capability and confidence in their intelligence gathering activities, the likelihood of a successful Dark Side effort should diminish over time. But programs with smaller budgets and understaffed offices may find it harder to separate the instances where corrective action is effective and those cases where an incorrigible rival is trying to make problems.

Social media is here to stay. So are both the people who don’t know they’re causing harm, and the people who know exactly what they’re doing. We’re watching…

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook, but only if you are NOT a prospective student-athlete.

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