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Ohio State shells out $360K to monitor all athletes

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OSU athletic director Gene Smith in an interview with The Lantern March 12. Credit: Cody Cousino / For The Lantern

OSU athletic director Gene Smith in an interview with The Lantern March 12.
Credit: Cody Cousino / For The Lantern

In a world where something as seemingly inconsequential as a text or tweet could mean facing the NCAA’s hammer, Ohio State is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a third party to help keep tabs on its athletes and coaches.

Documents obtained by The Lantern show the university is locked into a three-year contract for $360,500 with JumpForward, a sports relationship management firm based in Chicago.

In an exclusive interview in March, athletic director Gene Smith toldThe Lantern that, with the help of the JumpForward’s services, OSU could more effectively manage what its athletes (and coaches) post on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

“We track, so we see you as an athlete saying something on Twitter, or you’ve got something on your Facebook page that’s inappropriate or derogatory, we’ll come to you,” Smith said in March.

Details regarding the relationship between the two entities, however,remained muddled — the cost and scope of such monitoring were unknown.

Now, according to documents collected through a public records request filed April 19, it appears the extent of JumpForward’s services extend beyond just social media surveillance.

The Contract

OSU’s intent to employ a third party with the purpose of aiding the university in monitoring social media is first publicly outlined in the school’s “Annual Progress Report” to the NCAA, which was filed in August 2012.

The letter served as an outlined plan of measures the university planned to take in response to the 2010 “Tattoo-Gate” scandal, which led to NCAA sanctions and the resignation of former football coach Jim Tressel.

According to the contract between OSU and JumpForward, though, the firm’s services were effective as of July 1, 2012, with ensuing installments and updates to come in future months.

The contract shows that over the course of three years, OSU will pay three annual installments, shoveling out $143,500 in the first year and $108,500 in each of the remaining two years.

The first year includes JumpForward’s base charge of $83,000 in addition to a “Premium Solutions in Development” cost of $25,500 and a one-time, $35,000 fee for special customization.

The subsequent two years of the contract include the base cost plus the cost of the premium solutions, which are individually outlined in detail and cost.

Largely, it appears the bulk of JumpForward’s surveillance capabilities lie in its basic plan and premium services, which include 10 outlined “solutions” dealing with compliance, recruiting, social media, rules education training, equipment management, complimentary tickets and the tracking of phone calls — the common thread between each service is seemingly a shield against potential similar NCAA violations to those that rocked the university in recent history.

OSU Athletic Department representatives were not made available to discuss the contract. JumpForward representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“I see this as being about one thing and that’s about dealing with protecting the school from NCAA issues,” said ESPN basketball analyst, attorney and outspoken NCAA critic Jay Bilas. “If this was just about an athlete doing something or saying something on Twitter that might be embarrassing to the athlete or to the school, I don’t think we’d be seeing this kind of regulation and this kind of oversight.”

While not all schools might have the money, time and manpower to keep such extensive tabs, Bilas told The Lantern the choice to monitor (and further, the choice to hire a third party for help) is a lot like parenting.

“Each school should be free to handle it the way they’d like … that’s kind of the way it should be,” he said. “If I’m out with my kids and I see somebody at the next table out with their kids, they may parent differently than I do, that’s fine. I can do it my way, they can do it theirs. That’s the way the world should work.”

The Details

JumpForward’s services are essentially weighted in cost by sport — namely, services for revenue-generating teams cost more than non-revenue generating sports.

For example, JumpForward’s basic “recruiting solution,” which tracks “communications between JumpForward’s clients and their respective athletes and prospective recruits” with a database, costs all OSU sports except football and basketball $600 per team.

Conversely, the same recruiting solution costs $10,000 for football and $4,000 total for men’s and women’s basketball.

Premium features, perhaps not surprisingly, are generally more expensive. Social media monitoring costs $10,000 while the “complimentary admissions solution” (which helps OSU audit complimentary athletics events tickets to selected guests) costs $4,500.

JumpForward’s “reactive call tracking” solution, which provides OSU with a service that scans and analyzes phone bills to ensure NCAA rules aren’t being broken, costs $6,000.

The services raise the issue of where administrators need to draw the line between protecting their institution and playing what some might call Big Brother.

What It All Means

Kevin DeShazo, founder of Fieldhouse Media (a social media education and monitoring firm) and author of the book “iAthlete: Impacting Student-Athletes of a Digital Generation,” said schools often don’t have much of a choice.

“In some situations, the NCAA has put them in the position where they almost have to be (Big Brother),” he said. “They have to track that. Now, at the same time … how far do they go with that? Do they need to know every single number that a coach is texting or calling? And even if they do know, they don’t know what those conversations are about.”

It’s a clash schools face between the burden of playing their own police force in order to appropriately self-report violations and being overly intrusive.

DeShazo said things might get murky when schools force their way into private information — such as protected Twitter or Facebook accounts.

“If you’re not one of the people they’ve given access to, then you don’t deserve access to that. You can’t track every single thing a kid does 24 hours a day,” he said.

Schools like OSU, he said, “rightfully” want to protect themselves from the NCAA.

“That makes perfect sense. There’s a lot of logic in that argument and that’s OK,” he said. “But there has to be some respect for privacy and realizing they’re kids and they’re not breaking laws. If we can find information from the public domain, then so be it.”

Bilas said there’s a disproportionate amount of responsibility regarding NCAA rules and bylaws though.

“I think one of the things that is kind of upsetting — that I would disagree with — is that every time something happens, the burden seems to be placed on the athlete,” he said. “That, you know, you look at the NCAA rules and it’s the athletes that has to protect his or her name and likeness; it’s the athlete that has to sacrifice and accept less; it’s the athlete that everything hinges upon; the athlete has to stay amateur; the athlete has to do all this stuff. It seems like an unnecessary burden on only one class.”

DeShazo thinks schools using forms of monitoring have good intentions.

“I don’t think any school is doing that maliciously or trying to invade privacy. In their mind, they think, ‘We have to know what’s going on,’” he said. “They’re coming at that with good intentions. But I think they’re also coming at it not fully understanding what they’re getting access to and understanding social media.”

What might be at the heart of it, Bilas said, is simply a fear of the NCAA; the fear of being crippled for things that might have been prevented.

“What we’re seeing is that by monitoring all this stuff, the school can keep track of things (that) may ultimately wind up costing them in the terms of vacated games, suspensions, fines — the like — that are going to cost them real money,” he said. “That’s what this is about.”

To download a PDF of the university contract with JumpForward, click here.

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