Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
While it’s clear that Ohio State has the capability to track and monitor its student-athletes on social media, the details of the contract between the school and the firm aiding it in doing so remain muddled.
In an exclusive interview with The Lantern on March 12, athletic director Gene Smith said the athletic department was keeping tabs on its athletes’ behavior on Twitter and Facebook.
Probing the latter of those two sites, however, might sometimes walk a line between a school’s intention to prevent future compliance pitfalls and student-athletes’ right to privacy.
The deal with Jump Forward, a company that makes recruiting and compliance tools for college athletic departments, is one that allows OSU to use the corporation’s services on a retainer basis.
“Jump Forward serves as a safeguard,” said Diana Sabau, OSU associate athletics director of external relations. “We do not currently monitor our student-athletes but through their services, if we needed to, we could look at that.”
Rather, she said, the helping hand of Jump Forward can be turned on and off.
“If we needed to go back and monitor and track they could flip the switch for us and they could do it. But we are not engaging in that currently.”
Sabau, who was not involved in the signing of the contract between OSU and Jump Forward, could not provide information concerning the last time the athletic department actively monitored its athletes.
It’s one of several questions that appear to remain regarding the relationship between OSU and the firm.
Another question that seems unanswered is the depth of which the school has the ability to monitor its athletes and whether it crosses a line.
The Issue With Facebook
In a letter to the NCAA dated Aug. 15, 2012, OSU laid out widespread, extensive plans to overhaul its efforts in compliance within the athletic department after the school’s “Tattoo-Gate” scandal in December 2010.
Specifically, a subhead titled “Monitoring Social Media” on page 10 of the letter explains OSU created “a more detailed Student-Athlete Social Media policy to inform student-athletes of the institution’s social media expectations.”
Moreover, it spells out the school’s usage of “electronic software to assist with the monitoring of student-athlete social media accounts.”
“This software will enable the institution to monitor the social media accounts of all student-athletes that are open to the public for violations of NCAA, Big Ten Conference, and University and Athletic Department Rules. Each student-athlete will be educated on social media best practices and will be required to sign a statement signifying that they understand the institution’s social media expectations.”
The balancing act between privacy and right to information seems to begin when schools start to nudge their way into what might be deemed as more private forms of social media, such as Facebook accounts – which allows users to censor what people can and can’t see.
It’s why Kevin DeShazo, the founder of Fieldhouse Media – a company that provides social media education and monitoring services similar to Jump Forward – opts to only monitor “public information.”
“Facebook is too difficult – there are a lot of privacy settings, a lot of information that we don’t need access to,” DeShazo said. “And so we monitor their public Twitter accounts. So there’s lots of laws being written, obviously, trying to protect social media privacy of student-athletes.”
DeShazo said seven states (California, Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Utah and Arkansas) have introduced, passed and signed laws to protect the online privacy of student-athletes.
On a blogpost titled “Debate Heats Up Over Social Media Privacy of Student Athletes” on Fieldhouse Media’s official website, DeShazo writes:
“Each bill is a bit different, but they each attempt to solve the same purpose: protect the social media privacy of student-athletes. They are geared toward Facebook, where once you have access to a person’s page, you have access to sensitive, personal information – but also apply to other networks like Twitter and Instagram.”
On the same post, DeShazo lays out the specifics of what those laws prohibit athletic departments from doing.
Those things include: “Ask/require a student-athlete to turnover their login information … ask/require a student-athlete to log onto Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. in front of a coach or administrator, so that the coach or administrator can then see what is on the student-athlete’s profile; require a student-athlete to ‘friend’ a coach or administrator on Facebook (or require them to let you follow their private Twitter/Instagram account) use a monitoring software – internal or 3rd party – that requires the student-athlete to install software on their account that gives you access to their password-protected information.”
For OSU, though, certain exceptions warrant certain access to private – and perhaps sensitive – information.
“In instances where the OAC (Office of Athletics Compliance) believes that an NCAA violation might have occurred, the OAC will require the student-athlete to provide access to the non-public areas of their personal social media accounts,” reads the school’s aforementioned letter to the NCAA.
Jump Forward did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Lantern, but DeShazo explained how such a process might work with other firms.
“They have student-athletes install an app onto their Facebook account which then give monitoring firms access to every bit of data,” he said.
It’s a practice he called “a little awkward, kind of creepy.”
“Let’s say you are a 19-year-old female volleyball player … and you’ve got your Facebook on lockdown. You’ve got it private, you don’t friend people you don’t know but you’re a student-athlete,” DeShazo said. “Now you don’t have an option, you have to install this app for your Facebook account so now this company, as well as your school, they can see your email address, your phone number, your birthday which obviously on some level your administrators already have that. That information’s on file as a student. But they also get to see your calendar of events, campus parties … friends, relationship history, every picture, every video, I mean literally everything on there regardless of your privacy.”
While Sabau couldn’t specify as to what types of social media OSU can monitor, she noted that it depends how one chooses to use Jump Forward’s services.
“You can engage them at any or all levels of social media,” she said.
According to Smith, if athletes post “inappropriate” or “derogatory” things on Facebook, the athletic department will find out.
“We see you as an athlete saying something on Twitter, or you’ve got something on your Facebook page that’s inappropriate or derogatory, we’ll come to you,” Smith said. “We’ll pull you in. They know we track.”
But the depth of such monitoring seems yet to be fully understood.