Kevin Long had an idea.
Three-and-a-half to four years ago, Long began to notice a trend while he was preparing for meetings with collegiate athletics administrations across the country. During his research for MVP Sports Media Training, a company he founded in 2004, he observed schools were increasingly getting negative press for what student-athletes were posting on social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
So he inquired about what colleges and universities were doing to monitor and prevent potentially damaging items from popping up on these pages.
The answer? Little to nothing. Most had no clue what social networking was, unless there was an incident at their school.
Others suggested they could assign a graduate assistant or staff member to peruse each player's individual pages manually -- a rather painstaking, inefficient task.
There had to be an easier way, right?
Enter Long's idea: UDiligence.com.
The service essentially boils down to this: for a small fee -- $1,250 a year for 50 athletes or less, or $5,000 a year for 500-750 athletes (described as pennies a day for each athlete) -- schools are essentially given a broad-scale monitoring system for their athletes' Twitter, MySpace and Facebook pages. Enter in the keywords you'd prefer not to show up in your student-athletes' stream -- these can range from curse words to alcohol and drug references to just about anything; it's entirely customizable -- and the instant any of these buzz words are posted to a student-athletes' social media stream, administrators can be alerted via e-mail and a detailed account of the instance is added to a spreadsheet log … instead of online a few hours later on a blog or newspaper's Web site, which could be potentially damaging to the program.
But Long is quick to note UDiligence, which has its headquarters in Vermont, isn't about taking away student-athletes' rights to use Facebook, Twitter or MySpace, the three services UDiligence currently keeps an eye on. (Long says they plan on adding YouTube and Flickr sometime in the next calendar year.)
Instead, it's about protecting brand, image and reputation. And it's about education and responsible social networking.
"It's looking for those needles in the haystack, and when it finds them, it tells you," Long, who resides in West Lafayette, Ind., says. "It's not at all a disciplinary tool. It's really meant to protect the reputation and the image of the schools. It's not a gotcha tool. It's meant to provide a teaching moment, a mentoring moment to the student."
"It's an early-warning radar and insurance policy for the athletic department."
As I've written previously in this space, the perils of social media don't just extend to student-athletes -- pro athletes have also struggled with the fine line of what appears to be private updates and conversations on social media sites actually being a part of public discourse.
It's sometimes a difficult thing to wrap your head around, and has led to a whole host of negative press for athletes at all levels.
Collegiately, we've seen a wide range of social media shedding programs in a negative light, with some notable examples including one former Texas center getting kicked off the football team for a racial slur he posted on his Facebook page to photos of two underage Iowa football players with large sums of money and liquor popping up on Facebook.
But it's not always just about what student-athletes are posting; it's about who they are letting into their circle of trust.
"A lot of these student-athletes are not very selective on who they allow to be their friends," Long says. "Anyone who wants to be their friend, they accept. It's kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they're looking at it like: 'Well, if I've got 1,600 friends, I'm a big man on campus; it makes me popular.
"That's not just athletes, that's everybody.
"On the other hand, they have access to your page when they're your friend. All they have to do is right click and save, and even if you delete it later on, they've still got a copy of it … so it's a good idea to be careful and selective about who you allow to be your friends. It could come back to work against you later on."
And the service extends to more than just a student-athlete's time on campus; with some employers denying candidates for jobs based on questionable Facebook content, it's something that can help in that regard, too.
"Your Facebook page is your resume," Long says. "It's not just fun and games anymore; it's the real world, especially when you're graduating."
Long says the service is being used by about a dozen schools, from Big 12 universities such as Missouri and Nebraska to smaller schools such as the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and it has had inquires from several more universities in the past few weeks.
NFL teams have also asked about the service, Long says, which he surmises is in an effort for teams to have as much information at their disposal on potential player selections -- and by extension, investments -- heading into draft day.
Lenny Kaplan, the Director of Athletics at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, says the service has done a good job of flagging some mostly innocent, yet still questionable content on his student-athletes' Facebook pages.
"It's a time-saving feature that allows us to help protect our image," he says. "You have to know that once something's on the Internet, it goes forever -- the most innocent things go viral."
Long cited one example of a smaller Midwestern school having an athlete post an update involving a sniper rifle shortly after the 2008 election. Within a few minutes, the offending post was taken down, and a potential problem was quickly averted.
Most athletics departments using the service have a provision for the use of UDiligience in their student-athlete handbooks. Inquires seeking comment from student-athletes at NJIT, Nebraska and Mizzou were not returned by the time this article was published.
The fundamental idea behind UDiligence is just another example that the Wild, West West atmosphere that permeated social networking and media in the past continues to slowly evolve into a more controlled environment, at least as far as athletics are concerned.
We've seen Twitter wise up and authenticate public-figure accounts; we've seen the NFL and NBA set guidelines on when its athletes are allowed to post; we've seen teams at all levels educate and discuss what's an appropriate use of these services, even without the use of a tool such as Long's.
Sure, there are bound to be more athlete slip-ups down the road; the inherent rapid-fire nature of updating on the Web makes users susceptible to sometimes not thinking before they post.
But as the medium has matured, so too has the user. And it's a trend that should only continue.
Ryan Corazza is a freelance writer and Web designer based in Chicago.