The University of North Carolina received an official notice of allegations from the NCAA on Wednesday accusing the school of nine potential major violations in the football program. One alleged violation stands out in particular.
The basic accusation is that UNC failed to catch violations within its football program because its social media monitoring efforts weren't vigilant enough. Whoever was in charge of watching the Twitter and Facebook (and MySpace? And Reddit? And Flickr? And LinkedIn?) profiles of Tar Heel football players missed out on clues that pointed to benefit violations and more.
The very principle of social media monitoring sounds like a slippery slope to me. Overzealous internet "detectives" may end up violating privacy rights in order to get the information they're seeking, or monitors may make assumptions about athlete-agent or athlete-coach relationships based on Facebook friendships or Twitter postings. Some schools already have admitted to creating false accounts hoping to "befriend" student-athletes and get access to their Facebook photos and posts. Will that practice grow until student-athletes have to wonder who, exactly, they're interacting with? And if it's so easy for the schools to lie, why should it be assumed that the athlete is truthful in all of his or her postings?
Today's technology is just not foolproof enough to serve as evidence. What if a player's account is hacked and someone out to get him or the program posts with the intent of raising suspicion or implying wrongdoing? What if a boneheaded player or one of his or her friends uses a Facebook or Twitter account to crack jokes about getting a free car or a free pair of shoes? How can monitors be sure what's real and what's not?
What about those students who protect their tweets, apply the strongest privacy settings on their Facebook accounts or use aliases? Will they eventually be required to give over their account information to NCAA investigators? Once that line has been crossed, imagine what other information may be requested -- emails, phone calls and more. Already, questions arise about First Amendment rights when it comes to coaches or schools preventing student-athletes from using Twitter or other social media outlets. Imagine the uproar over such violations of privacy.
The practice of social media monitoring is not only troubling, it's unrealistic. How can anyone be expected to see each and every post by each and every player, particularly when many may be flying under the radar for a reason? Social media monitoring is a reactive measure that doesn't prevent college athletes from making inappropriate or ill-advised comments, nor will it help regulate programs that are violating NCAA rules. Schools should definitely be held responsible for the violations that go on right under their noses, but the means by which their programs are vetted must be kept within reason.
Trying to stop a violation after it already has occurred is like applying sunscreen after you've already been burned. If the NCAA really wants to stop schools from engaging in the type of behavior that is scarring the reputation of college athletics across the country, it needs to revisit its own policies, not spend all day searching for clues among posts about what a football player ate for lunch or what music he's listening to. Monitoring players' social media activity will not prevent them from engaging in impermissible behaviors. If anything they'll just learn how to keep their virtual mouths shut.