Twitter crackdowns do college athletes, free speech no favors

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Coaches don’t want to get beat because of a tweet. Increasingly, college coaches are monitoring — and in some cases banning — athletes’ use of social media. They’re nervous because an ill-considered tweet can embarrass the program, draw the ire of administrators and boosters, and possibly violate NCAA recruitment rules.

The anxiety is understandable. Consider these high-profile sports missteps:

  • In October, Western Kentucky University suspended running back Antonio Andrews after he tweeted critical comments about the team’s fans.
  • In December, Lehigh University wide receiver Ryan Spadola was suspended for retweeting a racial slur.
  • In January, sexually graphic and racially insensitive tweets led to high school cornerback Yuri Wright being expelled from his private school and losing a Michigan football scholarship offer.
  • Last month, the NCAA stripped North Carolina’s football program of 15 scholarships after an investigation based on a player’s tweet.

School bans spreading
Little wonder, then, that many college coaches are considering Twitter bans for student-athletes. Among major universities where coaches have banned or limited tweets: Mississippi State, South Carolina, Towson and Boise State.

Kathleen Hessert, a media strategist and CEO of Sports Media Challenge, said the bans aren’t realistic. “Many (coaches) are saying they are going to ban Twitter,” she said at a Fordham University Law School Symposium on Sports Law last month. “These are people making rules and regulations that don’t understand the basic tenets of social media,” and its value as a marketing and recruiting tool.

Some also don’t understand the basic tenets of the First Amendment. In a private program, coaches can make the rules and private institutions are not subject to restrictions. Public universities, on the other hand, are government institutions, and college students have a right to freedom of speech, just as all citizens do.

Can a coach at a public college condition participation in the sport on a promise not to engage in free speech via Twitter? Certainly, a scholarship offer can spell out standards of conduct expected of team members during the season, but a broader off-season limit that also proscribes non-sports speech could be challenged. Courts frown on prior restraint.

Other alternatives
Rather than ban the use of social media, many universities are turning to companies such as Varsity Monitor and UDiligence to monitor — some would say spy on — the posts of student-athletes. If the software flags a questionable word or topic, a coach gets notified immediately. Monitoring requires athletes to give access to their accounts.

Ronald Young, a Maryland state senator, has introduced a bill to bar universities from asking for sign-on information. “I think it’s violating the Constitution to have someone give up their password or user name,” Young told The New York Times.

Coaches who impose blanket bans or chill players’ speech by watching everything they post are not doing their athletes any favors. The handful of athletes who go on to professional sports will have to deal with social media throughout their careers, and they won’t learn anything if they’re not given any latitude.

The best approach is to give student-athletes the education they need to enter the workplace and to become well-rounded citizens. That includes the smart and responsible use of social media. There’s no better place to learn those lessons than in America’s high schools and colleges.

This article was first published in USA Today April 16.

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