This fall, Denard Robinson, Trey Burke and other Michigan athletes using Twitter have a new follower — the University’s Athletic Department.

The Athletic Department issued a social media policy this fall which outlines guidelines for using social media as a student athlete and the disciplinary process if postings violate state or federal law, institutional policies or NCAA rules.

As stated in the Social Media Policy — which student athletes signed this fall, along with other compliance forms — the Athletic Department must be notified of all social media accounts operated by student athletes. If additional accounts are “added or changed,” athletes must inform the University’s Compliance Services Office, according to the agreement, which was obtained by

The group works to keep the University’s athletic program “consistent with the letter and the spirit of NCAA, conference and University rules and regulations,” according to the Compliance Services Office page on the Athletic Department’s website.

David Ablauf, the University’s associate athletic director, said the department has had a social media policy in place since 2006, but this year marks the first formalized policy the athletes have signed.

“We decided that social media is such a huge part of today’s society that this year we were going to look at our policy and re-write it,” Ablauf said. “We had our leadership team within athletics review it and we all agreed to the formalization of this new policy, so we decided to put it into play this fall.”

Ablauf explained that the penalties for violating the policy will be handled by the Athletic Department, and will vary on a case-by-case basis. Examples of prohibited behavior include using offensive language, posting after sporting events when emotions can be heightened and writing anything that could be interpreted as endorsements for products or services.

“There’s different degrees to the penalties we’ll have for different student athletes,” Ablauf said. “Sometimes, if you make a mistake on social media it may be a conference with your coach, or your coach and a sport administrator. It may be a conference with the athletic director depending on the severity of the situation … it could be all the way to the point of suspension from competition.”

The policy requires that players provide their Twitter handles and Facebook account links to the Athletic Department and public relations groups within the department monitor the accounts, Ablauf said. He added that they do not request password information or “behind the scenes access” to any social media accounts.

Ablauf said the policy seems to have worked well so far, and there haven’t been any social media gaffes with student athletes this fall. He hopes the policy will also educate students about the importance of building their own brand via social media.

“We try to use it more as an educational process. We want to educate them about what is good and what is poor in terms of how you handle yourself in social media,” Ablauf said. “Whether you believe it or not, the companies that will look to hire and employ you in the future are looking at your social media activity.”

The new policy comes in the wake of several incidents involving athletes on Twitter. Last spring, wide receiver Roy Roundtree and linebacker Kenny Demens violated NCAA recruiting rules by tweeting their support to a new University commit, linebacker Mike McCray, before National Signing Day.

Ablauf said Roundtree was not aware that he was in violation of NCAA rules, since the new recruit was a friend of his. He highlighted the incident as an example of how the policy can help educate student athletes about the relationship between NCAA rules and social media.

“I think that this just puts it more in front of people’s minds when they’re student athletes,” Ablauf said. “Our goal is to continue to educate. Obviously, they’re on the stage, there are things that happen and things that people do that they don’t mean to do it, and … the young man did not know that was an NCAA violation. So that’s why for us it’s all about educating.”

Other universities also monitor student athlete social media accounts, and some colleges even opt to outsource the task to other organizations. The Universities of North Carolina, Nebraska and Oklahoma universities work with Varsity Monitor, a business that tracks the social media actions of student athletes to ensure they stay within NCAA rules, according to an article in The New York Times.

The University of Florida also works with a company called UDiligence to monitor social media actions of their football players, according to the article.

Kevin Long, CEO of UDiligence, said the business works with about two dozen universities, mostly in the BCS and Division I. The company requires student athletes to download an online application to allow UDiligence to access their Twitter and Facebook posts. The company then uses an automated system with various key words to search through messages posted by athletes and scan for any inappropriate content, specified by the hiring university. The system then updates the schools and athlete of their findings.

Long said the company’s mission is to educate athletes about creating a social media identity that will appeal to employers after graduation. He referred to the incident this fall in which Michigan State University football players tweeted harshly about University quarterback Denard Robinson’s performance in the Alabama season opener.

“Some Michigan State players tweeted thoughts about Denard Robinson, and because of what they tweeted, that is going to be the first thing that comes up and, as a future employer, people are going to take a look at that and think, ‘Is this the type of person we want to be a part of our team?’” Long said.

In its 2012-2013 Student-Athlete Handbook, Michigan State Athletics Department provides social media guidelines, but it does not monitor the social media accounts of their athletes. It holds “random checks” of the accounts and assesses incidents when brought forward.

Ablauf said the Athletic Department does not see the need to bring in an outside organization to monitor student athlete’s social media activity at the University, adding that the public and media also serve as natural monitors of social media messages.

“We’re looking and monitoring these things, but we aren’t the only people looking at them,” Ablauf said. “We have not decided to go down the path of using the company to monitor. Right now we have a pretty decent process in place.”

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