Big Brother For Social Networking?

The NFL has a growing concern over athletes' images being damaged through their use of social media, but there is one tool at the disposal of NFL teams and the union that isn't being taken advantage of.

In the ongoing lockout, with passions ramped up by vitriolic rhetoric and litigation replacing negotiation, there seems very little on which the two sides agree.

Kevin Long may actually have happened upon a common ground: He feels certain that both the NFL and its decertified union hope to protect players' reputations. And he and the company of which he is CEO, MVP Sports Media Training and U Diligence of West Lafayette, Ind., have developed a program that might aid in that pursuit.

The program, currently employed by about two dozen Division I schools, monitors the Twitter and Facebook accounts of players, and dispatches an e-mail alert to both the school and the athlete when one of the key "search words" is used. Think the Pittsburgh Steelers, and tailback Rashard Mendenhall, couldn't benefit from the program? And by extension - given that several players in the league have used social media outlets in recent weeks to offer messages that might be regarded as, well, anti-social, or at least misguided -- teams and their locked out rank-and-file wouldn't benefit?

"I would think both the league and the players association would be amenable to something like this," said Long, awaiting a flight out of Atlanta when The Sports Xchange contacted him this week. "If the key is protecting a player's reputation, and that's really what it is, wouldn't it seem everyone would want to do that? It's like being in Willy Wonka and finding the golden ticket."

One would think that, in a business where the opposite sides both parrot the hackneyed admonition about maintaining the "integrity of the game," such would be the case. But other than about three exploratory phones call from teams a few years go -- all of them seeking to potentially monitor the posts of potential draft choices and not incumbent players -- Long hasn't received any inquiries for a system that was designed in 2008.

The system, which includes clients in the six major college conferences and which was noted last week in a feature in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette concerning the increasing dilemma teams face with social media, tracks the posts of athletes from many of the client universities' major teams. The program identifies 500 key words - most of them from a range of subjects dealing with drugs, alcohol, sex, race and violence - and red-flags any messages using the terms.

Within 2-3 minutes, a cautionary e-mail is dispatched to the school and the athlete. As for a league that at times seems almost as concerned with the bottom line as with maintaining public confidence, the cost is negligible. It is $1,500 per year for one college team, and $5,000 to track 500 athletes in all sports.

Clients can also customize the menu of words that initiate the alarms. For instance, if the Steelers were facing the Ravens, then Pittsburgh officials could enter the term "Baltimore" or "Ray Lewis" on the list of red-flag terms, to potentially preclude their players from providing bulletin-board material. So franchises could tailor the list of verboten words to meet their needs.

Could the NFL potentially make the program a condition of employment, a better and clearly more enforceable method of policing the often misguided messages that some players initiate? Obviously, there would be some First Amendment issues. But, as Long noted, the players must willingly download the application for it to work. And if the league and the players' trade association (formerly the NFLPA) were to collectively bargain the program into a new CBA, it would stand a better chance of withstanding any challenges.

Several attorneys and agents surveyed by The Sports Xchange about a league-mandated ban on players' use of social media contended that the issue would be strenuously challenged. But it would "have some teeth, at least," an agent agreed, if it was part of a CBA, and thus agreed to by the trade association. And the fact that a player must voluntarily download the application to permit the tracking might also offer a way around First Amendment or privacy issues.

Of course, a union that views HGH blood-testing as an invasion of privacy that it won't sanction - and which has instructed players against agreeing to such exams - probably isn't about to limit players' rights to social media, right?

Of the seven teams contacted this week by The Sports Xchange, only two were familiar with Long's service. Officials from some of the franchises acknowledged interest, but none committed to exploring it. Still, several of the club officials conceded to concerns about players using social media, particularly during the lockout.

"My feeling," Long said, "is that once you put something on the Internet, it's no longer private. I would think teams might want to guard against that, at least in some instances."

Obviously, as has been demonstrated in recent weeks by Twitter and Facebook posts for which players have been forced to apologize or explain, the issue of the increasing use of social media is of some concern to franchises. There are a few college programs that ban players from using social media in-season. The NFL has rules that prohibit players from using social media during games, and for a time before and after contests. Last season, Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, arguably the NFL player whose Tweet messages have attracted the widest audience, was fined $25,000 for using Twitter during a preseason game.

Long said that, in speaking to athletes, he urges them to avoid what he terms a 'Google-able moment.' Said Long: "The last thing you want is for your own words to come back at you." He uses Mendenhall, whose Twitter remarks in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden have drawn sharp criticism even from loyal Pittsburgh fans, as an example.

Indeed, when Mendenhall's name was "Googled" on Wednesday, 16 of the first 20 items cited concerned his bin Laden remarks. There was sparse acknowledgement of his consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, even of his untimely Super Bowl fumble.

"If (Mendenhall) had some way of due diligence for what he was saying, perhaps he could have mitigated it in some way," Long said. "Let's face it, people make bad judgments ... and we help protect them from themselves sometimes."

Long has what he laughingly referred to as the "Mother Rule," and, while relatively simple, it might merit consideration for NFL players and the population at large.

"If you're posting something that would make your mother spill her coffee when she reads it, or to keel over," Long said, "then don't do it."

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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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