A Vermont company keeps a vigilant eye on students' online behavior
Not so long ago, just about the only worries for college coaches and athletic directors were winning games and keeping players free of injuries. Now, in the age of social networking, such concerns seem almost quaint.
Consider the following scenarios: The captain of a university hockey team posts photos on Facebook of himself and other underage players drinking whiskey and smoking pot at an off-campus party. A racy video appears on YouTube showing the girls’ varsity soccer team hazing new teammates in their underwear. The quarterback of a college football team posts racial slurs about his school’s archrivals on his MySpace page.
With the ubiquity of social networking and camera phones, the sophomoric antics of college athletes can linger much longer than a weekend hangover. When student athletes or their friends post images online of themselves engaged in lewd, embarrassing or even illegal activities, the consequences for the players and their schools can be devastating. Negative publicity. Lawsuits. Lost endowments and TV revenues. Entire athletic careers and future employment opportunities cut short.
There is an alternative. A Montpelier-based company called YouDiligence is providing a service to colleges and universities around the country that most are ill equipped to handle on their own: UDiligence is a software program that monitors the social-networking activities of student athletes for potentially embarrassing and damaging words and images. When it finds one, UDiligence automatically sends an email alert to coaches and administrators — ideally before the information becomes a source of public humiliation, or worse.
Kevin Long, 39, is the founder and chief executive officer of YouDiligence. He describes himself as a former “frustrated high school athlete” whose own collegiate baseball career was cut short — not by an embarrassing photo or Twitter post but by something more mundane: a knee injury.
After graduating from Purdue University, Long started his own consulting firm, MVP Sports Media Training, which teaches student athletes how to protect their reputations and deal more effectively with media outlets. In the process, he made a startling discovery: Often, the most lurid details about student athletes’ behavior were posted by the players themselves on their own social-networking sites.
Simply put, many athletes have no idea that talent scouts and recruiters aren’t just watching footage of players hitting a home run or running for a touchdown. They’re also scouring MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube looking for potential liabilities to their teams, including drug and alcohol use, racial and homophobic references, and violent tendencies.
And, as Long points out, such concerns aren’t just limited to student athletes who are trying to go pro.
“I guarantee it,” says Long. “Whatever employer [students] go to now, whether it’s the NFL, IBM or some Wall Street firm, they’re going to … ask to see their [social-networking] page.”
Here’s how UDiligence works: A college or university provides the company with a team roster and athletes’ relevant biographical info, such as their ages and hometowns, to ensure that the software is monitoring the right person.
Next, the software identifies all the athletes’ social-networking sites and monitors their posts on an hourly basis. Mike Howe, the company’s cofounder and chief technology officer, explains that UDiligence scans social-networking sites for students’ names and more than 500 objectionable words in five categories: alcohol, drugs, general/racial (i.e., hate speech), violence and sex.
Additionally, schools and coaches can customize their search parameters to make them more or less stringent. For example, one coach may not care whether players are writing about their sexual behavior. Another coach from the same school may not want athletes to use any obscenities whatsoever, either on the court or online.
Currently, UDiligence scans Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, the three most popular social-networking venues among North American college students. However, the company plans to expand its monitoring capabilities to sites such as YouTube and Bebo — a social-networking site that’s popular in Europe — as well as Formspring, a site that allows users to make anonymous posts.
UDiligence isn’t cheap: The service starts at $1250 a year for up to 50 athletes, and increases with the number of athletes and teams added. According to Long, some universities are now paying as much as $6000 a year to monitor the online activities of 750 athletes. To date, more than two dozen colleges and universities around the country have enrolled in UDiligence, and new contracts are being added all the time.
“Business is great right now,” says Howe, one of the company’s dozen or so employees based in Montpelier. (Long also maintains an office in West Lafayette, Ind.) “It’s definitely picking up steam.”
In fact, while UDiligence was initially designed for coaches and athletic departments, interest in the service has since expanded to other aspects of campus life, such as student employees and ROTC programs. Long suggests it might not be long before some colleges offer this service to all their students.
“If I were a college student today, I would want this on my account,” he says. “What may seem innocuous to me may not necessarily be innocuous to a potential employer.”
If the idea of an unblinking eye scanning students’ Facebook posts for naughty words strikes you as a bit Orwellian, you’re not alone. Two years ago, when YouDiligence first began marketing its services to schools, the company raised eyebrows at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting students’ free speech and other civil rights.
“Does the online student speech monitored by YouDiligence really fall under the purview of collegiate athletic departments?” wrote New York attorney and former FIRE intern William Creeley in a January 14, 2008, post on the FIRE website. “What degree of privacy can a student athlete expect to enjoy? Further, if schools feel comfortable monitoring online speech for athletes, what is to stop them from extending their observations to the general student population?”
But, as Long points out, YouDiligence isn’t violating anyone’s privacy if they’ve already chosen to make something public by posting it online.
“This is not about freedom of speech,” he argues. “We’re not telling people they can’t post something. All we’re doing is reporting when that content is posted. It’s the school that has the conduct policy, not us.”
Moreover, Long emphasizes that the goal of UDiligence isn’t to punish young people for youthful indiscretions. Instead, he sees it as a “mentoring tool” that can teach students a valuable lesson about protecting their name and reputation in an era when words and images can live forever online.
“It’s not ‘Big Brother,’” Long says. “It’s Big Mother. A mother bear does everything she can to protect her cubs.”
He may be onto something. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt told the Wall Street Journal several weeks ago, “I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time.” According to the Journal article, Schmidt theorizes that, one day, all young people will qualify for a new identity upon reaching adulthood, in order to erase the negative images of them compiled on their friends’ social-networking sites.
Indeed, Long believes his company does more than just protect young people’s identities and reputations. It can also protect their lives.
Shortly after UDiligence launched in 2008, the company began developing a new product for parents and caregivers of children under the age of 18, which was designed to protect them from web predators and cyber bullies.
YouDiligence — the second service has the same name as the company — alerts parents whenever their child makes an inappropriate or potentially dangerous post on a social-networking site.
Long explains that he got the idea in 2008 while listening to a radio report about Brooke Bennett, the 12-year-old Randolph girl who was allegedly abducted, raped and murdered by her own uncle. At the time, much of the police investigation focused on the girl’s efforts to meet up with someone she’d met through MySpace.
“Right then it struck me that we had a tool we were using that was helping people protect their reputation, and that it might actually be helpful to parents, too,” Long says. “This is completely a mentoring and educational tool and we encourage parents to use it as a way to improve their communication with their child.”
Like UDiligence, the YouDiligence software can be customized to monitor for specific words, names or phrases, such as references to popular teenage hangouts. As Long puts it, “There are unlimited possibilities of things that can be searched for.”
Oddly, while YouDiligence (the company) appears to be growing — Long reports that a “large school” in the Southeastern Conference just signed up this year, as did another in Conference USA — to date no Vermont colleges or universities are on board. But Long hopes that will change eventually, as more schools learn about his product and recognize the value of the service it provides.
“A lot of people say that athletic departments only care about wins and losses,” Long says. “But this is really preparing student athletes for the game of life.”