Universities turn to third parties to monitor athletes' online blunders

Universities turn to third parties to monitor athletes' online blunders
File photo of Twitter page.
When University of Washington guard Isaiah Thomas arrived in Pullman earlier this year, it wasn't his words that caught the attention of students at Washington State University.

It was his postings on Twitter.

"Guess What?," wrote Thomas, who has more than 13,000 Twitter followers. "It's freaking snowing in this GHOST town man… Damn!"

It was a harmless comment, but by game time on Jan. 30, students at Washington State University had read the Tweet, and were ready to heckle the Husky point guard throughout the game. After the Cougars' 87-80 win, several logged onto Twitter and sent messages back to Thomas.

While colleges have long monitored their athletes' comments, the rise of social media - and Twitter and Facebook in particular - have raised new concerns for major college sports programs. Several universities have hired a private company to monitor the social media websites of their athletes.

"We protect them from potentially harmful statements they make that could affect them for life after college," said Kevin Long, CEO of UDiligence, which has worked with the University of Nebraska, Texas A&M, and Louisville, among others.

The Pac-10 conference does not have a policy for social media, but it allows individual universities to enact their own policies. At the University of Washington, head coaches set their own policies for social media, according to a UW source.

Bill Stevens, the media relations director for WSU said, "The athletic department does not have a policy regarding student athletes using Twitter and Facebook."

On its website, UDiligence highlights several examples of questionable postings by athletes, including sexually suggestive images, sexist comments, and pictures of a Pac-10 basketball player holding what appears to be an assault rifle.

"It is impossible to tell these kids not to use Facebook or Twitter these days when all their friends are on it and using it," Long said. "But at the same time, not monitoring what they are saying isn't right either."

UDiligence monitors student-athletes' posts and Tweets and notifies the university as well as the athlete when it finds objectionable content.

"We have athletes install an app on their Twitter accounts and Facebook page and when something harmful is said the system automatically notifies the athlete and either a head coach or media director," Long said.

According to Long, Udiligence's system uses a pre-set word list, and whenever one of those words is used in a post or tweet, the athlete and university are notified.

Texas A&M was one of the first clients to use the Udiligence service.

"We love it," said Shalena Brown, scholastic supervisor at Texas A&M. "We have had it for two years now and our athletes were a little hesitant at first, but when they warmed up to the idea of UDiligence looking out for them they began to love it as well."

Before the Jan. 30 UW-WSU game, Thomas and WSU guard Reggie Moore, who has posted more than 8,000 times on Twitter, started a playful conversation on Twitter.

Thomas Tweeted at Moore, saying they should "start some beef on twitter LOL... so they can think we hate each other! Hahahaha."

On Feb. 6, Thomas sent a Tweet, apparently signing off for the next several days. The Huskies face the Cougars on Thursday in the Pac-10 tournament, whose championship game will be held on March 12.

"im off Twitter till Mar 12," Thomas wrote, "bcuz WE WILL be playing that day!"

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The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.