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Athletes and social media may be dicey combination

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- In the parlance of NCAA compliance matters, there are few accusations quite as serious as the one that says you don't monitor what's happening in your program.

You're in trouble for one thing, but on top of that, you're in trouble for doing nothing to prevent the other thing. Or things.

The University of North Carolina football team has a list of problems as part of a lengthy investigation. Seriously, there are nine items listed in the NCAA's Notice of Allegations delivered to Chapel Hill last week.

Some of the accusations are well known when it comes to the NCAA's investigations and they'll likely conspire to get the Tar Heels in some trouble.

One in particular is all but unprecedented and can also get UNC in trouble, as well as a bunch of other unknowingly susceptible schools. UNC was hit with the failure to monitor - but more specifically - a failure to monitor social media.

The wealth of the case against the football program involves the relationships between agents and players and coaches, as well as the benefits that may have come from those relationships.

What's unusual about this is the NCAA kind of says UNC should have known better and sooner because the Twitter account of former defensive tackle Marvin Austin gave away some serious clues something was going wrong.

Among the list of suspicious tweets were messages bragging about travel and shopping sprees and parties and pictures that gave the public a look into all of the above.

Austin was later dismissed from the team, while two other players were ruled permanently ineligible, for what UNC Athletic Director Dick Baddour said was "accepting extra benefits and then not being truthful with our staff and NCAA representatives."

Here's the scary truth about this as the ripples in the water reach the shore of compliance offices throughout the country. These schools have problems related to the actions and interactions on social media sites that they don't know about and there's only so much that can be done to prevent it.

 In fact, prevention isn't really the practice. Most schools are reactive rather than proactive and deal with an issue when they discover one or are made aware of one.

West Virginia is among that camp and, like just about everyone else, paying close attention to UNC.

The story about how the NCAA views and adjudicates behaviors on Facebook and Twitter and all the associated sites has yet to be written. It's one thing to say a school has to be on top of it. What happens next in terms expectations and penalties is what matters most.

"If a mandate comes out and the NCAA wants us to police these sites on a daily basis, versus following up on issues when we find them and educating student-athletes about what they can and can't do, yes, that's an issue," said WVU's associate athletic director for compliance and governance, Keli Cunningham.

It's an issue, Cunningham said, because to properly oversee the online behavior of some 400 student-athletes would require a full-time position. WVU keeps a set of eyes on things right now, but it's a graduate assistant. The resources of full-time employees are better used in other matters.

And even if a full-time position were devoted to that particular job, it's still pretty pointless.

"It's impossible to put something in place to allow you to review these materials at a level that allows you to catch everything," Cunningham said. "You just can't do it."

And yet, given the proliferation of social media and the predilection for players to log on and sound off, the potential for problems is only increasing and the NCAA has to be increasingly concerned. Players can't do seemingly innocent things like talk at an unsigned recruit or endorse a restaurant or promote judging a dance contest at a club on a Saturday night.

UNC isn't even accused of that. It's in the news for not looking at what were probably harmless innocuous tweets at the time and then using them as the motivation to dig deeper, which proves just how slippery this slope might be if it the NCAA chooses to go down that road.

Surely the NCAA has to be with it enough to realize how difficult it is to police it all, but they will just as surely expect a reasonable practice in place to be on top of things.

Then again, define reasonable. That's a heck of a variable.

"That's the reality of compliance," Cunningham said. "The UNC issue, to be honest with you, doesn't give me any more red flags than what we already operate under. We operate under red flags and we're constantly looking at what type of monitoring efforts we can go through to make sure we're doing our due diligence to run a solid program."

Cunningham said WVU does the required rules education with student-athletes and makes sure everyone is clear on online conduct. Students and boosters are sent an email that goes through the rules, as well.

WVU also conducts random checks of the online content, which extends to message boards, just in case. It's not unusual to check on high-profile players, but it would be just as normal to see if someone with less fame is no less at risk. Same goes for well-known recruits who have not yet signed, but are still subjected to WVU fans sending them persuasive messages that go against the rules.

Mostly, though, WVU relies on its rather large and rabid fan base. Last week, for example, the compliance office was made aware of an advertisement for basketball player Deniz Kilicli's gig playing guitar with the Davisson Brothers band. That's a problem. Student-athletes can't be used for such promotional purposes. Kilicli was eventually put on the bench.

That has nothing to do with social media, of course, but it's proof the very large net WVU allows its followers to cast is effective.

"I get the sense there are a lot of people who I feel are connected to WVU athletics who have been willing and who I expect will continue to be willing to pick up a phone and call me and say, 'Hey, this might be a problem,' " Cunningham said.

She said there have been "at least a handful of issues that have been brought to my attention" in her 10 months on the job. They're all investigated. If necessary, they're reported to the NCAA - and that's if the NCAA hasn't come to WVU first because the NCAA is always looking.

And now the NCAA might be looking to change the way things are done and making it a lot less subjective.

"If they say UNC never, ever went out and looked at any kid's page and that's not reasonable, yeah, I can get there," Cunningham said.

"If they're going to say, 'Oh, no, they should have been out there for this prescribed time period watching this many student-athletes,' that's where the red flag comes in. Perhaps they say it's a failure to monitor because they had enough information to send them to those sites and see for themselves. We just don't know yet, but I think the UNC issue could potentially dictate something a lot more standard."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at or 304-319-1142. His blog is at


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