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Colleges Do UDiligence to Prevent Social Networking Embarrassment

By Jim Henry

Jamil Northcutt doesn't mean to be nosy.

However, Northcutt, assistant athletic director for Internal Operations at Ole Miss, wants to make sure Rebel student-athletes understand the importance of protecting their brand and the university's image each time they click into a social networking page. Scouting out questionable content can keep athletes and athletic programs out of embarrassing situations.

Northcutt isn't an old fogie, either.

The 29-year-old is a former Ole Miss linebacker and award winner who spent three years as the player development coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs before he returned to his alma mater in an administrative role. Northcutt realizes that social networking pages offer new opportunities for persons to explore interests, communicate with friends, develop technical skills, and foster independence.

Yet, not all social networking is good social networking.

"We certainly respect the social networking rights of our student-athletes but, at the same time, we also want them to be mindful of how they present and represent themselves," Northcutt told FanHouse.

"We want to educate our student-athletes and help them understand how this can impact them today, tomorrow and 10 years from now."

Northcutt and Ole Miss are accomplishing this with the help of UDiligence.com, a Vermont firm that scans the social networking profiles of Rebel athletes for any references to drugs, alcohol, sex, violence, racial slurs or profanity.

UDiligence was founded by Kevin Long, a former congressional press secretary, and a business partner. They have invested more than three years and a substantial financial sum into the patented social network monitoring system, complete with bells and whistles, and currently work for more than a dozen athletic programs nationally.

Long says his system is monitoring Facebook, MySpace and Twitter pages -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- of more than 6,000 student-athletes from New Jersey Institute of Technology to the University of Nebraska.

Pricing depends on the number of student-athletes and portal configuration but costs from $1,350 per year for 50 athletes or less to $5,000 per year for over 500 athletes.

"It only costs pennies a day per athlete to protect the athlete's reputations and the image of the school," said Long.

Prior to UDiligence, Long started MVP Sports Media Training in 2004, and it was while doing background research for a few MVP media trainings that he realized athletic programs across the country faced serious issues with items being posted on social networking sites by their student-athletes.

Compounding the problem was that, in many cases, athletic programs were unaware of the potential trouble until someone from the media called.

"By the time a reporter calls asking about it, it's too late. You've lost the advantage from a public relations perspective. So I asked myself what were they doing to protect their student-athletes and their program from this sort of negative exposure?" Long said.

"Most athletic departments still ignore the issue and hope nothing happens. For those that do make an attempt, it is usually the function of an intern, grad assistant or maybe an assistant coach to manually go through these social networking sites to see what their athletes are posting. It is both inefficient and ineffective to try to manually monitor 50, 100, or 500 athletes on a consistent basis.

"Inevitably they will miss something," Long said.

That something could quickly mushroom into a very bad day for athlete and school. In fact, athletic departments are learning that every student-athlete with a social-networking account is a potential public relations disaster.

Several colleges have disciplined athletes for posting questionable content on their social networking pages.

The University of Texas, for example, kicked a player off its football team because of remarks he made on his Facebook page about then-President-elect Barack Obama. Four female soccer players at San Diego State University in 2006 were penalized for alcohol- and partying-related pictures they posted on their personal Facebook accounts. And former Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach banned the use of Twitter on his football team.

Long said his system saved a small Midwest school and a male student-athlete from negative press and potential legal trouble when it caught the athlete's jesting reference to having a sniper rifle.

"Within minutes after we alerted the administrator, the material was taken down from the athlete's Facebook page," Long said.

The NCAA has not taken a formal stand on how much a university can monitor or restrict accounts. From a legal perspective, however, experts believe that schools have every right to restrict their athletes from their involvement with social networking sites.

Long explained the UDiligence program scans the text on an athlete's social networking page, including captions of photos and videos, looking for more than 500 key words that have been flagged. Athletic programs can also choose to customize the keyword list, be alerted by email, and login to a secure web portal to check which players have violated the rules.

UDiligence has also developed a consumer version of its service, called YouDiligence.com. It is offered to parents for $9.99 a month and allows them to monitor their children's pages on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, protecting them from cyber-bullies and web predators, sending them email alerts when any of the keywords is found.

Oliver Pierce, assistant athletic director at Gonzaga, said men's basketball players were stunned to discover how easily Long's company gained access to their social networking pages.

"As an outsider who had easy access to their information and as someone they didn't know prior to (Long) walking into the room, that made a huge impact on how they now view and utilize social media," Pierce said.

Northcutt was in Mobile, Ala., early last week for Senior Bowl practices. He met with friends and NFL colleagues, in addition to former Ole Miss players such as Dexter McCluster who participated in Saturday's high-profile game that can boost their profiles for the NFL Draft.

Northcutt realizes that players need to make a favorable impression, on and off the field.

Professional scouts talk to numerous coaches and administrators on school visits to properly assess the reputations of draft hopefuls. Background checks are extensive, including repeated sweeps of social networking sites, and character counts. At least one NFL team has contacted UDiligence about monitoring potential draft pick's social networking pages for them, but Long won't say which team is on the cutting-edge.

Former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer said moral character and football character are heavily scrutinized by evaluators throughout the pre-draft process.

"If you have players of character, you never ever have to worry about things on the periphery," Schottenheimer told FanHouse in regards to the Internet and other issues.

"The team is the most important thing and you don't have to worry about the distractions that can go along with player issues. I've always believed that good people can win for you in many cases where great players can't."

Northcutt pointed out that today's college athletes are part of a generation that relies on the Internet to communicate with friends, choosing to update their public profiles rather than making a telephone call.

Many times athletes post a comment or photograph without contemplating the ramifications. And no school or program is immune from the damage that can be caused by careless postings and poor decisions. For instance, there are more than 65 billion Facebook page views per month, and 45 percent of users visit the site each day.

"With the Internet, more times than not, this isn't a private message between two people. In reality you are reaching an international audience, and it's easy for a post to go viral," Northcutt said.

Long said his program has discovered on the social networking pages photos of athletes posing with tens of thousands of dollars in cash, guns and drugs. In each case, the school was automatically notified by email with a link to the post. This is not just a problem for big-time Division I programs. Long said there are problematic social networking posts at every school.

"It's only a matter of time until every school has an issue stemming from a student-athlete's social networking post," Long said.

"It doesn't matter if they are an NAIA, NCAA Division II or III, a mid-major, or a BCS conference school. If the local paper found out some of the stuff the student-athletes are posting, it could be personally devastating for the student-athlete and an unnecessary and unpleasant distraction for the coach and athletic director.

"It would ruin their week."

Both Northcutt and Long stress to student-athletes that image and ability are connected at the hip -- or by the key stroke.

Northcutt said Ole Miss has used preseason meetings to teach student-athletes on how to use social media in a way that promotes the university and themselves. He said athletic departments must combat the dangers of these sites by educating student-athletes about the consequences of what they post and what others post concerning them.

"When a student-athlete moves into the professional world, be it athletics or business, they need to know that scouts and HR (human resource) departments use these social networking pages as a way to gauge the character of the people who are applying for jobs within their company or on their team," Long said.

"For a professional team, this is a major investment, both financially and personally. I had a basketball coach once tell me the best way to predict the future with someone is to look at their past."

And, for many student-athletes, that past -- good or bad -- is documented on their social-networking pages. Forever.

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