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Volume 21 No. 34
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Firm combs social media as background check for college hires

Every trek into social media leaves digital footprints. What those footprints say about an athlete or a coach could provide valuable insight when it comes time to recruit them or hire them.

Uncovering that kind of data through social media, though, isn’t typically within the capabilities of an athletic department, so a California-based agency called Social Media Sports Management, which goes by SM2, is now providing digital background checks as part of its services.

At a time when the FBI is investigating college basketball and arresting coaches, agents and financial advisers for allegedly committing bribery and fraud, SM2’s founder is proposing what she calls digital forensics as a way for athletic administrators to find red flags and safeguard themselves.

“What we’re finding out is that bad decisions can cost a brand millions of dollars and maybe someone’s job,” said Carrie Cecil, SM2’s founder and CEO. “All we’re saying is that better information can help you make better decisions. Social media is the primary way people communicate now, and looking at someone’s social media behavior serves as an ounce of prevention.”

Carrie Cecil, SM2 founder and CEO.
Courtesy of: SM2
Cecil, whose background is in communications and crisis management, launched SM2 in 2015 to work with schools, teams and leagues on social media education. Auburn University, TCU, the Big 12 and the former St. Louis Rams were among her first clients.

She has since evolved her services to form a four-step program, which starts with social media education, departmentwide policies and procedures, methods to scrub old social media, and now, the forensics piece that digitally investigates the social media from recruits and hires.

She has just begun introducing the digital background checks to college administrators, who can purchase the program as a whole or a la carte. Fees start in the thousands and go up, depending on the level of services the school buys.

“You’re seeing athletic directors — reputable athletic directors — who find themselves on the hot seat because of behavioral situations,” Cecil said. “You can’t always control someone’s behavior, but you can make sure they’re educated.”

To create digital background checks, SM2 is teaming with Franklin Global, a security, intelligence and investigative firm that was founded by a former FBI agent, Patrick Conley. His firm works with large and small businesses on security and mitigating risk.

Franklin Global’s digital intelligence tools dig deep into someone’s social media background to find clues about behavior and relationships.

Cecil emphasizes that her firm looks at only information that’s public, such as Twitter and Facebook accounts, both new and old, and that her firm is compliant with federal and state privacy laws. Still, there could be questions about whether this kind of background check on a teenage recruit is appropriate.

“If you’re making a decision on a service like this, you want to be assured you’re not doing anything to invade private rights,” said Jeff Schemmel, a former athletic director at San Diego State who now consults with athletic departments and conducts searches through his firm, College Sports Solutions. “That will be the test here. I’m interested to see how it might be utilized.”

Franklin Global uses search tools to inspect social media for behaviors that might indicate issues with unlawful behavior, racism, intolerance, violence or domestic situations. The tool looks at key words, likes, retweets and relationships on social media to build a personal social media profile.

Cecil believes that most recruits have been taught to keep their social media clean, so the tool looks through old accounts or alternative accounts as well.

She believes these tools can even project where a recruit might be leaning, based on mentions in social media posts, and that could affect a coach’s decision on which athletes to offer a scholarship.

“This is something that can empower athletic leaders in the digital space,” said Conley, who spent 20 years in the FBI. “This is critical information for a coach or an administrator to have at their fingertips. It’s the difference in speculating about a behavioral bomb and knowing how to avoid it before it goes off.”