In March, we learned a little about the cottage industry that has sprung up around monitoring the Twitter and Facebook accounts of college athletes. Six of the schools that appeared in this year's men's Elite Eight have contracts with companies that track what the athletes are doing on social media. So do other major athletic departments, including LSU, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas.
But how does the snooping actually work? How do you automate what's essentially a form of pre-emptive scandal detection? Thanks to a number of documents we've obtained through public records requests, now we know the answer. And it's just as hilarious as it is creepy.
Social media surveillance is all the rage now, due in no small part to the free marketing these companies receive from an approving press. ESPN recently trumpeted these services as a way of dealing with "issues" that arise on "online sounding boards for emotional young adults," and SB Nation and the Associated Press similarly extolled their virtues.
We're talking primarily about three companies: Varsity Monitor (about which we've written before), Centrix Social, and UDiligence, the last of which features on its website a graphic slideshow of college athletes up to no good, in the vein of those grisly car-accident photos they show you in drivers ed. Some athletic departments keep the surveillance in-house—maybe players will have to "friend" their coaches, for example—but more and more are outsourcing to one of these three firms, which charge each client school thousands of dollars a year (more on their fees later).
Varsity Monitor and Centrix Social restrict their monitoring to the athletes' Facebook and Twitter accounts. UDiligence also watches over Myspace, Instagram, YouTube, Foursquare, and Formspring. On Facebook, the firms can see everything—wall posts to others, wall posts from others, status updates, photos, and the like—even if the athlete has made the content visible to his friends only. How is that possible? Because athletic departments require the athletes to install an app that reads all the text on their pages. (We know Varsity Monitor and UDiligence use these apps to monitor Facebook. We haven't seen Centrix Social's app, but given that the firm says it monitors Facebook the way the others do, it's likely that Centrix uses an app, too.) The installation is a one-time step that makes a user's data available to whichever company is policing him. UDiligence has a similar app for Twitter, which would make available all of an athlete's tweets, even those from a protected account. Varsity Monitor uses dummy accounts to follow its charges.
Once the computers gather all that data, the firms' software searches it for trigger words and reports back to coaches and athletic department functionaries. This happens in near real-time.
The software-generated reports look like this (students' names are normally attached, but this report, obtained from Mizzou via open records request, redacts them):
(View the full document here.)
Here's where things get even sillier. UDiligence, which produced the report above, has a scoring system for the social media updates it monitors. We've made the whole thing available here. Trigger words are categorized— "profanity," "racial," "violence," "alcohol," "drugs," "sex," and "text acronyms—and scored from 1 to 3. "Bitch" is level 1 (lower risk), "douche" is level 2 (medium risk), "fuck" is level 3 (high risk). Some of the scoring can seem arbitrary and offensive in its own right. In the "racial" words category, for instance, "cracker" is a 1, "gook" is a 2, and "negro" is a 3. The "alcohol" category has "Bombay Sapphire" at 1, "Bud lite" at 2, and "Colt 45" at 3. "Sex" words figure "BJ" a 1, "tapped dat" a 2, and "gay" a 3. Mostly, the whole thing looks like a moral-panic bingo card. "Columbine" is here (level 2), and so is "steroids" (level 3).
UDiligence also provides an accompanying list of definitions to explain what each dirty word really means.
"Nigga" (level 3):
Slang often used by African-Americans to describe other African-Americans who are their friends.
"Bust a nut" (3):
Slang for male ejaculation.
Spanglish slang for killing someone.
When something blows-up [sic].
"Meister Brau" (3):
Brand of domestic beer favored by college students and rednecks.
"Jeremiah Weed" (3):
Brand of alcohol and energy drink favored by college students and 40 something mom's [sic] who hang out in the Hamptons and Nantucket for a few weeks in the summer.
Brand of high-end champaign [sic] often favored by rock stars and athletes.
"Sam Adams" (1):
Brand of domestic beer favored by those with a more sophisticated palate.
Skin sack which surrounds a man's testicles.
"Snort lines" (3):
Breathing in illicit drugs that have been cut with a razor blade on a hard surface.
Metal at the end of a syringe used for instering drugs into your veins.
"Popping da cork" (3):
Slang for taking someone's virginity; OR opening a bottle of champagne.
You Are Such A Bitch
Quit Fucking Talking and Fuck Me Already
Who are these people? All of the firms were founded by businessmen with no discernible connection to college athletics. Sam Carnahan, the CEO of Varsity Monitor, used to work in marketing for Castrol BP. The guys behind Centrix Social started online banking ventures (and a Beef O'Brady's franchise) in Alabama. And Kevin Long at UDiligence was a Defense Department subcontractor for counter-narcotics programs, which means he knows how cartels—Cali, Medellin, the NCAA—make their money.
Social-media monitoring is decent business. According to our documents, the University of North Carolina paid Varsity Monitor $8,640 to watch over its athletes for 2012-13. LSU paid UDiligence $7,700 for 2010-11. (We couldn't track down a contract for Centrix Social, but The Birmingham News pegged its fee as in the neighborhood of $10,000 per year.) Each company has more than a handful of athletic departments as clients (UDiligence has 24). That's a fine revenue stream for a young business with low overhead. The lesson, as always: There is money to be made in college sports, so long as you're not playing them.
In return, athletic departments get a full-time babysitter. Consider this email from Nebraska Life Skills Coordinator Jessie Gardner to Varsity Monitor's Carnahan, after he told her that the social media reports usually don't go out over the weekend:
(I had a few questions for Gardner, but when I reached her, she said she was on her way to a meeting and that she didn't "really feel comfortable talking with Deadspin.com, because I know, in the past, they have presented things negatively." She had the Life Skill to know not to talk to us.)
Athletes—"SAs" (as in student-athletes), in athletic department parlance —don't have much say in the matter of monitoring. Donovan, the compliance director at LSU, sent this email to student-athletes:
And here's LSU's spirit squad head coach Pauline Zernott emailing her charges:
I followed up with Donovan. He confirmed that there wasn't anything voluntary about this—at LSU, anyone who played any sport had to surrender social media privacy. (Athletes who hadn't signed up were red-flagged in an Excel spreadsheet.)
LSU dropped UDiligence after the fall, Donovan said, because the Facebook software didn't work. Even though the app didn't ask for students' passwords, it required reauthorization every time a student changed his password or privacy settings. "I got pretty frustrated losing access to the pages," he said, "and I didn't like that I had to keep asking the student-athletes to reauthorize this app." Donovan said LSU hasn't yet decided if it will go with another software provider for the 2012-13 season.
The NCAA, while typically mealy-mouthed on the subject, suggests placing limits on snooping. This is from the Public Infractions Report for UNC, released in March:
The committee declines to impose a blanket duty on institutions to monitor social networking sites. Consistent with the duty to monitor other information outside the campus setting… such sites should be part of the monitoring effort if the institution becomes aware of an issue that might be resolved in some part by reviewing information on a site.
In other words: the NCAA thinks colleges should have a reason to examine their athletes' social media pages before they go poking around. They need "a reasonable suspicion of rules violations," as the NCAA puts it later in the report.
A few politicians are trying to ban involuntary social media surveillance. The Maryland state Senate, by a vote of 46-0, recently passed a bill that would prohibit colleges from demanding access to students' accounts, but it's held up in committee. Last month, Eliot Engel, a representative from New York, introduced federal legislation nicknamed "SNOPA" that would ban schools and employers from demanding social media platform access, but it's too early to tell if that bill will go anywhere.
In the meantime, UDiligence, Centrix Social, and Varsity Monitor still hawk their wares, and similar services will no doubt proliferate. They're the inevitable outgrowth of a system in which everything is a commodity. Here's how Varsity Monitor put on its website: "At Varsity Monitor, we monitor the social media interaction of athletes for questionable conduct that could negatively affect their 'Personal Brand'. We monitor for actions that could endanger their future career and sponsorship opportunities as well as damage the brand of their team, league & institution."
The company later scrubbed that language. In fact all three services seem to have lately become self-conscious. While I was reporting this story and filing open records requests, all three firms removed their client lists from their websites. This was peculiar. Both UDiligence and Varsity Monitor had it in their contracts that they could use schools' names and logos to promote their services. Now only prospective clients could see the lists. They'd made the lists private. Funny how that works.
Colleges have gotten shy, too. Louisville, a UDiligence client, denied our open records request for the social media reports given to the athletic department. (We weren't looking for any names or identifying information—we only wanted to know what the reports looked like.) Why were we turned down? "The release of these summary reports," wrote senior compliance officer Sherri Pawson in an email, "would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy of the students."
Image by Jim Cooke