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The Monitoring of Student-Athletes’ Social Media and Its Invasion of Privacy

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Photo Illustration: The use of social media among athletes has a 58 percentage point increase from 2005-15, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. 

Watch what you tweet. Everything you put online is out there forever. Employers look at social media.

When Kevin DeShazo, the founder of Fieldhouse Media, gives lectures to different athletic programs across the nation, these are some of the common warnings and information he shares with the student-athletes in front of him.

“(Student-athletes) don’t necessarily understand what social media actually is and how big it actually is,” DeShazo said. “We try to open their eyes and show them what it is.”

The use of social media, especially among athletes, has been on a steady rise since the early-2000s, evident by a 58 percentage point increase from 2005 to 2015, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

Social media has increased the visibility of celebrities and professional athletes for fans, and that visibility has trickled down to the collegiate level. However, student-athletes have been under fire in the past for posting content that would be deemed inappropriate or in poor taste.

Because of this, some athletic programs, like the Alabama football team, have limited social media use for its players while others have turned to third-party companies to educate athletes on the perils of the internet and/or monitor social media accounts for malicious content, which has raised some concerns over student-athletes’ individual rights of freedom of expression.

Fieldhouse Media is one of few companies remaining that provides this service in 2016, DeShazo said.

“We only monitor (the accounts) if the school wants us too,” DeShazo said. “That’s not a big push of ours. I rarely talk about it with schools."

Varsity Monitor is another company that works to monitor public social media content of student-athletes, said Sam Carnahan, Founder of Varsity Monitor.

"High school and college students often share more on social media than they do face to face, and monitoring non-private social media content gives athletic administrators a window into the lives of their athletes," Carnahan said via email. "Through the monitoring of social media, our clients have found opportunities to enhance their student wellness outreach programs, including academic, social, and emotional, providing the best opportunity for them to have success in the classroom and on the field. Social media monitoring is not about finding swear words, but about knowing the most about your student athletes to support them in the best possible way."

While some companies were bought out (Centrix Social) or folded due to lack of revenue (UDiligence), others were under fire for violating privacy rights of student-athletes. But as these companies began fading out, control of what these third-parties could monitor became stricter in favor of student-athletes.

That is not to say that monitoring doesn’t go on, just that it is not a violation of any federal law now, John Browning, an attorney at Passman & Jones law firm, said.

“It’s appropriate for universities and employees, like the athletics director or coach, to set appropriate policies, and that may include the use of a third-party monitor,” Browning said. “It’s also appropriate to inform the student-athletes of that.

“On the one hand, we talk about First Amendment rights and free speech of the student-athletes, but it is a fact that we accept certain limitations of our rights when we participate in college athletics whether you’re a scholarship athlete or a walk-on.”

The Razorback men’s basketball team is the only UA program to use Fieldhouse Media this year, DeShazo said. The program was used as an educational tool after DeShazo came by in the summer to talk to the team.

David Beall, the associate communications director for basketball, said the session centered “on best practices and things to consider when utilizing social media.”

Razorback men’s basketball coach Mike Anderson and members of the team declined to be interviewed for this story.

The agreement between the UofA and Fieldhouse Media did not include a provision to monitor student-athletes’ accounts, Kevin Trainor, the associate athletics director of public relations, said in an email.

Beall also said the UofA does not discourage student-athletes from using social media like some programs across the nation do.

This is not the first time the UofA has used a third-party company when dealing with social media and its student-athletes. DeShazo said he and his team came and addressed all student-athletes in 2012 in much the same way they did with the basketball team.

Even though social media monitoring is offered by Fieldhouse Media, DeShazo said they were not asked to provide this service for the UofA.

“We haven’t felt that a third-party vendor was the appropriate step forward right now,” Marcus Sedberry, the assistant athletic director for student-athlete development and administration said. “We think that our student-athletes understand the importance of managing their brand and the university’s brand. Quite honestly, we have some good young people that make smart decisions a majority of the time.”

But that doesn’t mean companies haven’t tried to take on the Razorbacks as clients.

When Sedberry was at the UofA from 2012-2014, he said “a number of companies reached out” to him.

Sports fan are 67 percent more likely to use social media to “enhance their viewing experience” than non-sports fans are, according to a study from Navigate Research.

This large consumer base is one of the main reasons that social media education and preparing student-athletes with the right tools is paramount for their success, DeShazo said.

“What their players are doing impacts recruitment, fan engagement and media relations so it touches almost every part of their program,” DeShazo said.

The social media guidelines for UA student-athletes include the provision that coaches and administrators monitor social media and hold the authority to ask to remove anything that is deemed malicious in content.

"Naturally, if we were to identify something that we think might negatively impact their brand or the university’s brand we bring that to their attention,” Sedberry said. “We don’t have a formal monitoring program.”

Consequences for violating these guidelines include “written notification requiring the unacceptable content be removed, temporary suspension from the team, dismissal from the team, and loss of athletic aid, if applicable,” according to the 2016-17 Razorback Student-Athlete Planner & Calendar that is given to every student-athlete at the UofA.

While none of these violate any type of federal law, according to Arkansas state code 6-60-104, “an institution of higher education shall not require, request, suggest, or cause a current or prospective employee or student to disclose his or her username and password to the current or prospective employee's or student's social media account.”

“I can’t really speak to exactly how every department does it,” Sedberry said.

Sedberry did say that giving over social media information was not a requirement but athletes are sometimes asked to.

“You don’t have to turn over your username but some departments ask for them for their social media, for the sake of media relations but they don’t necessarily have to turn over their name,” Sedberry said.

Browning said he understands the thinking behind coaches or administrators asking for social media information.

"The fact that there are limitations, as long as they’re reasonable limitations, being put on some of your free speech rights are appropriate in the case of student-athletes,” Browning said.

Social media is no longer considered a fad among athletics programs like DeShazo said coaches thought it would be a few years ago. It’s use among student-athletes, while not a violation of individual rights, could be on the cusp of crossing over into dangerous territory if not monitored correctly.

Browning, DeShazo and Sedberry all said education is key going forward with dealing with social media and that’s what the UofA has been doing for its athletes, from freshmen orientation to career-development programs.

“In many instances, student-athletes have not been given the guidance to know what is inappropriate or not,” Browning said.

Sedberry said he is not opposed to using a third-party monitoring vendor in the future if the need for one would arise.

“We are always willing to entertain those conversations and see what different programs are out there, but at the end of the day, we want to make the best decisions for the university and for our department and our student-athletes,” Sedberry said. “If there was a program that we felt met our needs and our current programming, it made sense based off of our student-athlete population and if we ever became concerned about what our student-athletes were posting or we wanted to go in a different direction in our social media monitoring then I’m sure we would absolutely consider it."


CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Fieldhouse Media is the only company remaining that provides this service in 2016. Varsity Monitor is also one of the companies which provides the service, and the article has been corrected to reflect that.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this article also faulted Varsity Monitor for the illegal invasion of privacy of student-athletes. Those quotes have been removed because they cannot be independently verified by the Traveler.

A statement from Varsity Monitor has been added to this article.

The Traveler strives for accuracy and clarity in all matters.


Alex Nicoll was the editor-in-chief of the Arkansas Traveler from 2017-2019. Before that, Alex was a sport designer, and he wrote stories for the news, lifestyles and sports sections.

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