Should universities be allowed to monitor the online behavior of student athletes through forced access to social media accounts or contracts with third-party tracking companies?
That question was thrust into the public eye again Monday after the Courier-Journal in Louisville reported on how two local universities with powerhouse sports programs keep an eye on players via Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.
The University of Kentucky and University of Louisville both track players through contracts with the social monitoring software service Centrix Social, which emails coaches whenever players produce tweets or posts that include words from a list of some 400 trigger terms. Words flagged by the schools include “agent” and agents’ names, “porn,” “robbery,” “doobie,” “beer bong,” and “Sam Adams,” according to the report.
Many other college programs use Centrix or similar monitoring services to find and discourage posts by student athletes that could potentially damage the reputations of their schools and teams. At some schools, consenting to having their online behavior followed is a prerequisite for playing on sports teams.
Also among the words Kentucky coaches are alerted for: “Muslim” and “Arab.” A Kentucky spokesperson said the two words would be removed from the list of flagged terms after the Courier-Journal questioned their inclusion.
Nevertheless, the presence of those two words underscores why such monitoring of college athletes is an invasive — and legally precarious — practice in general, says Bradley Shear, a Maryland lawyer whose work frequently involves sports and social media. He believes their inclusion may have created an opening for the school to be charged with discrimination based on race or religion.
“I think it’s a potential First or Fourteenth Amendment violation,” he told Mashable on Monday. “Why were Arabs and Muslims singled out but not other ethnic or religious groups?”
Others have criticized schools’ tracking of athletes — no matter what’s included in the list of key terms — as a free speech curtailment.
“Schools that require their students to turn over their social media user names and/or content are acting as though they are based in China and not in the United States,” Shear wrote in a blog post last February.
Shear says that forcing student athletes to have their social posts monitored creates a legal liability for schools. He pointed to Yeardley Love, a former lacrosse player at the University of Virginia who was murdered by a former boyfriend who played for the men’s lacrosse team.
Love’s mother is now suing athletic department officials for $30 million for negligence in ignoring previous violent behavior by the man who later killed her daughter. Had the team also been monitoring social accounts but missed anything that could have indicated future violence, Shear says, that could have opened the school up for further negligence litigation.
Privacy vs. Prudence
There is also growing legislative momentum toward protecting student athletes’ use of social media. In March, Maryland’s state Senate passed a bill to prevent public colleges and universities in the state from requiring students including athletes to provide access to their social accounts. California lawmakers are now considering a similar bill.
So how then should schools deal with the potential for damage from posts athletes make to social networks? Shear says the same way they typically seek to discourage bad behavior in the offline world — preventative education and punishment for mistakes, but not constant automated monitoring.
“Schools don’t have private investigators trailing kids all over town,” he told Mashable. “They aren’t bugging kids’ apartments. So how can they justify this behavior?”
Do you think schools that require athletes to consent to social media monitoring are just being prudent — or are they overstepping their bounds? Give us your take in the comments.