The University of Kentucky Athletics Department is using software to track the social media activities of all its student-athletes — a practice that is becoming a trend at schools nationwide.
All student athletes are required to sign a form saying they will "friend" on Facebook and open their Twitter accounts to a UK athletics compliance officer. That gives the department access to those accounts; the Socialverse software searches out key words that might cause alarm, such as profanity, and sends regular email updates to UK personnel. UK started monitoring athletes' accounts last fall.
"It's a better way to monitor them," said UK athletics spokesman DeWayne Peevy. "Social media is such a huge phenomenon, and we talk about how it's a chance to start your brand, but you have to protect it."
The use of Facebook and, to an even larger extent, Twitter has exploded among college students and everyone else. One of the biggest Twitter users is men's basketball coach John Calipari, who has more than 1 million followers and often drums up more followers for his friends and players.
Recently, nearly all basketball recruits have come to Lexington with pre-existing Twitter accounts. Star freshman Nerlens Noel has 56,000 followers on Twitter.
But students don't always understand that every tweet and retweet is essentially public and potentially controversial. Peevy monitors the men's basketball team and says he already is sending them notes along the lines of "you might want to consider how this will sound."
"It's a deterrent," he said of Socialverse, "letting them know where the lines are drawn. They're representing our brand as well."
Peevy was not able to say how much UK is paying Socialverse, although other schools' contracts have been in the $10,000 range.
The hiring of companies such as Socialverse, UDiligent or Varsity Monitor is becoming increasingly common across college campuses, especially ones that have noticed the potential and problems of social media. Calipari might be a social media pioneer, but other schools have had less positive experiences, including the University of North Carolina, which found itself in an NCAA investigation after a careless tweet by a player.
The growth of such social media tracking also is raising concerns among privacy advocates, who say that requiring students to hand over password-protected content to administrators is a violation of the right to privacy.
"It's clearly unconstitutional," said Bradley Shear, a Bethesda, Md., attorney who has worked on state and federal legislation to ban the practice. "The students are told if they want to keep their scholarships they have to provide access to password-protected content."
Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., filed a bill known as the Social Networking Online Protection Act, which would ban such tracking by employers and universities.
The national American Civil Liberties Union supports the measure.
"We do think it's a big deal," said Chris Calabrese, ACLU legislative counsel. "What makes this problematic is that so many people's personal lives are moving online now, and we think you should be able to have that kind of privacy online as you do off line. When universities and employers can blur that line, that's a very bad example for the future of where we're going."
The ACLU is backing a Minnesota middle school student who filed a federal lawsuit after school employees searched her Facebook and email accounts.
Shear also said universities that take on social media monitoring are creating a huge legal liability because they will have much more information about students and what they do. In other words, if you track all the social media of students, you've taken on more legal responsibility over what they do.
"They've opened a Pandora's box," Shear said.
Some coaches just say no
Peevy said he doesn't agree with the privacy issue because social media is all public, which is exactly the problem.
"You've got to be more proactive now because it's part of their regular conversation," he said, adding that some students are more apt to direct-message one another on Twitter than have a conversation.
Former UK football player Randall Cobb found out how public Twitter is in the Big Blue Nation in 2010 when he posted a complaint about fan support. He deleted it, but that only stirred the furor. Cobb later made a public apology.
Last year, Coach Joker Phillips told the Herald-Leader that he tells his players they might as well start each tweet with "Dear (NFL) General Manager."
"That's who you're sending it to," Phillips said. "You're not just sending it to a friend or a fan, you're sending it to everybody across the country."
But coaches at UK have latitude about their players' social media practices. Last season, women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell banned his players from Twitter during their season.
On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Florida State football coach Jimbo Fisher had banned his players from Twitter for the rest of the year.
Fisher's move came after some players tweeted objectionable material in recent weeks, including one that quoted rap lyrics about killing police officers, the AP reported.
Also Thursday, University of Louisville football Coach Charlie Strong talked about Twitter at the Governor's Cup luncheon in Simpsonville.
He was asked whether he monitors Twitter during the summer.
"When a guy says something he shouldn't say, it's tracked down fairly quickly," he said. "Social media — I say it all the time — it's going to be the downfall of society. People tweet and never realize that once you tweet, it's there and it's never going away. ... Once it's posted; it's posted. We just have to be smart about what we do and what we say."
Two years ago, Peevy said, the UK athletics department started the school year by having a group of social media experts talk to all the student athletes. The forum had started before that, when one of the group's employees friended all the athletes. When she appeared before the athletes, no one knew who she was even though they had friended her on Facebook.
"It showed our students that they'll friend anyone even if they have protected accounts," Peevy said. "They're finding out these things are not private, and they want more friends and more followers."
Peevy thinks that Calipari is unique among coaches for the interest he takes in social media. Calipari sometimes does Follow Fridays on Twitter, in which he lists all the players' accounts. But Peevy, who operates Calipari's Twitter account, says he understands the dangers.
"I think most coaches wish it would go away," Peevy said. "It can be a beast and make a lot of problems, but if kids can be responsible, it can be a great tool for marketing."
Staff writer Jennifer Smith contributed to this article. Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.