I SPY A tailback in an English lab at 8:02 a.m. I spy the runny eggs he eats at the training table 92 minutes later, and the flirty Facebook note he posts about a classmate at 11:36 a.m. I spy the cap he wears into art history at 3:59 p.m., and the peace sign he flashes in a party picture stamped 11:58.
I spy him all day and into the night; he's living the Orwellian existence of a college athlete in the digital age. Across the nation Big Brother is wearing team colors. "I've never felt like a normal student," says Josh Briscoe, a senior receiver at Tennessee, adding, "No matter what you do, everyone is always watching you." This isn't a complaint or paranoia, but an acceptance of reality on campuses where the new fight song is Me and My Shadow.
Inside a 33,000-square-foot academic center devoted to athletes at UT—from the men's basketball team to women's crew—Vols swipe I.D. cards when they move from math tutor to study hall to computer stations, as electronically tracked as FedEx packages. (The linebacker is number 55 in your program and number C3Y285 on his I.D. bar code.) At Texas A&M, as The Chronicle of Higher Education detailed last week, officials budgeted $48,224 last year for class-checking nannies, who deterred athletes from participating in a college ritual: skipping.
The current climate of dread among coaches and administrators—will an athlete's slightest slipup go viral online?—makes bed checks seem so Bear Bryant. With athletic departments underwritten by TV money and hedge-fund boosters, teams can spring for the high-tech tools to discover not only Where's Waldo? but also What's Waldo Thinking? They can pose as secret agents of the mind with a software program introduced at the NCAA convention last winter: YouDiligence. It provides a shortcut for coaches to scan the Facebook and MySpace pages of athletes, rapidly detecting buzzwords, such as funnel or bong, in their cyber chatter. More than two dozen college programs, including some BCS powerhouses, have signed up as clients since last January, according to Kevin Long, president of MVP Sports Media Training, which markets the service to universities. "Where an athlete crosses the line is up to the athletic departments," Long says. Imagine coaches as the thought police: So I see you dig Marilyn Manson; well, Junior Satan, drop and give me 50!
It's not a stretch. Some coaches require athletes to list them—yes, The Coach—as a friend on their Facebook pages, which is a lot like putting BEWARE OF DOG on their dorm door. With a click, The Coach has an all-access pass to a player's social world. "Athletes are upset by it," says Zeynep Tufekci, a sociology and anthropology professor at Maryland Baltimore County, who has surveyed more than a thousand college students, including athletes, in her research on the impact of technology. "I ask them, 'Are you a star player?' And they laugh because they're not.... I've had athletes say they've been told, 'Do not have a Facebook page,' but given how they communicate, that's not an option. It's like being told. 'Don't have a phone if you don't want to be wiretapped.'"
The Coach sees all, knows all As Tufekci explains, athletes fear being photographed with a red plastic cup in their hand at a bash because coaches view it as a symbol of alcohol consumption, even if they're only drinking Yoo-hoo. "It's guilt by association," she says. The constant surveillance is creepy yet reluctantly accepted by athletes who realize they are acquisitions, stocks to be followed on a crawl. "Some things I personally don't agree with," says Oklahoma's Nic Harris, one of the nation's top defensive backs. "You take some of the individualism away from people. At the end of the day we're seen as an investment. And the university wants to protect its investment. They have to protect what's going on in your life for their best interest."
The NCAA's academic reform three years ago—demanding that programs meet graduation standards or risk losing scholarships even as institutions lower admission levels—is the latest reason for hypervigilance over athletes' activity. It's also allowed coaches on the BCS scale to monetize their players' grades. Most say they are educators first, yet, oddly enough, their base pay doesn't cover teaching. Take Nebraska's football coach, Bo Pelini. He will pocket an extra $125,000 if the Cornhuskers' graduation rate equals that of the overall student population's.
College athletes are bonus babies for a coach, parented by a staff of dozens on campus. Coddled, to be sure. But aren't they entitled to the college experience? As always, students are ahead of technology. Some are confiscating cellphone cameras, the picture-posting devices of every social network, at the doors of parties attended by athletes. As every player of the spy game knows: You can't catch what you can't see.
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Inside an academic center for athletes, Vols swipe I.D. cards when they go from math tutor to study hall, as electronically tracked as FedEx packages.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER