In a world where information is available at the click of a mouse, college athletes are becoming more and more like celebrities. These student-athletes have fans from all over the country following, friending, and sharing every thing that they post on social media. With this new practice becoming the norm, college athletic departments, coaches, and even the NCAA has had to make changes in how they handle their own social media presence, as well as their athletes’.
The only rules that the NCAA has regarding social media and student-athletes are as follows.
“Student-athletes may not publicize a prospect’s visit to campus (i.e. posting on Twitter, Facebook)”
“Student-athletes may not publicize the recruitment of prospects (i.e. public tweeting, posting on Facebook, retweeting verbal commitments, etc.)”
As it stands, the NCAA does not have a clear rule that requires athletic departments to monitor the social media activity of student athletes, but they do encourage it, according to a 2012 NCAA report. “While we do not impose an absolute duty upon member institutions to regularly monitor such sites, the duty to do so may arise as part of an institution’s heightened awareness when it has or should have a reasonable suspicion of rules violations.”
How rigorously social media guidelines are enforced or punished vary from athletic department to athletic department, and at some schools, from coach to coach. Many schools let the athletes use their best judgment when it comes to their social media, but some athletic departments and coaches across the country have enforced, what seems like, almost unconstitutional bans on social media.
At Indiana University, student-athletes are held to a higher standard than other students, staff, or faculty. Because they are in the public eye, these athletes are told that they should “avoid conduct that could be perceive as improper or unfitting of a university representative.”
Missouri State University athletes are not only responsible for what they post on their own social media accounts, but for “information, photos, and items that may be posted by others on their pages.”
At Florida State University, “failure to follow policy can result in indefinite suspension or dismissal from the team and loss of financial aid.”
“Facebook was a culture shock to the entire world, but Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat have turned the Public Relations world on its head. At a time when privacy issues are at the forefront of national attention, social media monitoring can be a difficult topic for corporations, businesses and other organizations” University of Mississippi Assistant Director of Public Relations for Social Media Strategy, Ryan Whittington said. “As we’ve seen so many times in the media, one wrong tweet could turn into big news.”
Monitoring of social media accounts is a huge task for athletic departments simply because of the number of student athletes. Many of these schools have begun using programs like VarsityMonitor or YouDiligence to patrol their athletes’ accounts. Both of these programs are designed to monitor social media sites and send email alerts when they identify problematic posts.
The rapid increase in new social media guidelines stem from athletes in the past embarrassing themselves and their universities when they post inappropriate content to these popular social media sites.
One example of this is when University of Northern Alabama football player, Bradley Patterson tweeted a racial slur at President Obama when a televised football game was interrupted by the President’s speech. Patterson was immediately removed from the team and his Twitter account was deleted.
Elon College running back Jamal Shuman, took to Twitter to complain about his lack of playing time saying, “There goes another game of my f—–g senior year nd I don’t touch the f—-n field lik I ain’t one of the best athletes on his damn squad.” Officials at Elon soon caught wind of the tweets and Shuman was suspended indefinitely.
Ohio State University third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, who would eventually lead the team to the 2014 National Championship title, once tweeted, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.” Jones was suspended one game and his account was later deleted, but he is now active on the site again.
The University of Minnesota’s senior Forward, Trevor Mbakwe, tweeted that he would repay his scholarship if the team didn’t return to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence saying, “I love my teammates. They have always been there for me. If we don’t make the tourney I’ll pay back this years scholarship. #nolie #gophers.” Mbakwe later apologized and deleted the tweet.
These are only a few examples of student-athletes carelessly posting to social media without acknowledging the consequences of what they had done.
These mistakes are not only being made by current student athletes, but also by the highly coveted recruits. Mistakes that end up costing the athletes their future college career.
4-star cornerback, Yuri Wright, was playing high school football at Don Bosco Prep School in Ramsey, NJ, before he was expelled over racial and sexually graphic tweets. The University of Michigan backed the high school by rescinding the high schooler’s scholarship.
In a 2013 study by Fieldhouse Media, 72 percent of student-athletes have a Twitter account and 97.4 percent of those student-athletes are tweeting daily. Along with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are rapidly increasing in popularity. 93.5 percent have a Facebook account and 99 percent post to it daily, while 64.8 percent have an Instagram account, and 94 percent post to it daily.
“It’s a different dynamic. You have to be really, really careful about saying the right thing [on social media],” said Professor Scott Fiene, director of the Integrated Marketing Communications program at the University of Mississippi. Just as much as it can help you, it can tear you apart.” Fiene said that without monitoring, student-athletes are not going to learn the right thing to do and social media is a skill that they should have.
The biggest takeaway from these numbers is not that student athletes are embracing social media, but that more than half of schools do not educate their athletes on how to properly use these sites. 50.9 percent of student athletes say they’ve received no social media education/training.
Instead of properly training athletes to understand how to correctly use these social media sites, many coaches have completely banned their athletes from using any form of social media.
Purdue men’s basketball coach Matt Painter does not allow any of his players on Twitter during the season. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino also made the same decision for his players.
There are some that believe that these intense social media restrictions and guidelines are pushing on the edge of unconstitutional. Social media policies at the University of Akron, Florida State University, and Oklahoma State University all read, “Do not have a false sense of security about your rights to freedom of speech. Understand that freedom of speech is not unlimited.”
In an interview with University of Maryland students, Howard Wasserman, law professor at Florida International who specializes in sports said, “There’s not a lot of case law to explain the extent to which colleges may police student-athletes’ speech. It would be up to a judge to determine whether a First Amendment violation occurred.”
The University of Mississippi Athletics program has had to deal with some social media mistakes, such as basketball star Marshall Henderson’s tweet following the NCAA tournament selections saying “jst had to say …. 10 IN A ROW IN PONG!! WHO WANTS TO SEE US?!?!”
Later that night, Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche tweeted a photo of Henderson, apparently after his impressive beer pong run, looking severely impaired.
The University of Mississippi’s athletic department encourages their coaches and players’ presence on social media sites. “Social media is a wonderful outlet for us because it’s a great way for us to interact with our fans,” said Jason List, Assistant Athletic Director for Marketing at the University of Mississippi. “We want to humanize and personalize the student-athlete and social media allows us to do that.”
While Ole Miss has had to deal with a few issues, they have embraced the positives that social media interaction can bring.
Ole Miss Athletics Director Ross Bjork is extremely active on Twitter and has even made a few headlines with his funny and compelling tweets sent out to his 39,000 followers.
Bjork once took to Twitter to respond to a Mississippi State fan requesting that they “meet face to face”. Bjork tweeted a photo of himself with championship wrestling belt saying “The real question is…..do you want to meet ace to face?”
Bjork also regularly responds to criticisms and complaints about players on the social media site.
Football coach Hugh Freeze is also quite active on Twitter, constantly tweeting out bible verses and motivational quotes to his 118,000 followers.
One of Freeze’s most recent tweets says, “God’s kingdom is not about earning & deserving; it’s about believing & receiving. That’s GOOD NEWS. Worship somewhere 2day! Have a great day”.
He has been known to interact with fans on occasion, giving them a backstage pass into the Ole Miss football program.
He also responds to some criticisms about his team and recruiting styles. Following the 2014 season where the Rebels went 8-4 after an impressive run that included knocking off top-ranked Alabama, someone tweeted “Remember when Freeze tried to dissuade recruits from going to #MSST [Mississippi State] by saying Mullen was an atheist?”
Freeze responded by saying “what?? I have respect for him and with respect to you, that is garbage and not true.”
Kyle Campbell, Assistant Athletic Director of Media and Public Relations at the University of Mississippi said, “As an athletics department, we conduct social media responsibility workshops annually with our student-athletes. Policies are handled on a team-by-team basis as dictated by the coaching staff”
So while Ole Miss does not have a blanket policy for all of their athletes, they do include a statement on social media in the student-athlete handbook.
“Due to the growing popularity of internet community websites (i.e. Facebook, Twitter) you are cautioned to use mature judgment and discretion regarding the content of what you might consider posting. Avoid posting photographs, language, or criticisms, which might result in embarrassment to you, your team, or the University. Since these sites are public, you should also resist posting personal information that could be used by those who may wish to cause you harm.”
Social media is such a huge part of the world today and anyone can go online and say anything about another person and program. And while we may not think of student-athletes as regular people, many times, posts and tweets can have a negative effect on the teenagers and young adults that playing athletics for these institutions.
In today’s social media age, fans can hide behind a Twitter handle, Facebook page, or a message board username and spew out their rage directly at the 18- to 23-year-old student-athletes.
After Alabama kicker Cade Foster missed three field goals in the 2013 loss to rival Auburn that squashed the Tide’s national championship hopes, fans tweeted profanity-laced death threats to the 22-year-old athlete.
In a CBS Sports survey, 13 of 37 SEC players responded with “very often” to the question about whether they received social media harassment. Nine said that they were occasionally harassed.
While coaches may emphasis that players ignore this type of criticism, it can have an extremely negative effect on athletes who are in an age group that may not process the attention the way and older, professional athlete would.
Blair Browning, an associate professor at Baylor University has done extensive research on social media in sports and she notes that while colleges have increased their social media training, there is another aspect that some school may be overlooking.
“But I think there’s still a gap, because it’s still training on how to use social media, and not how to process the comments that come into them,” Browning said in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “Especially in the Power Five conferences where everything they do is under a microscope.”
Social media has added a completely new element to college athletics. It can be seen as a positive or negative. It can help players and coaches engage with fans, but it also opens the doors for criticism and personal attacks.
As the popularity of these social media sites grows, college athletic programs must include training for their student-athletes, as well as for their coaches. Training that not only includes teaching these young student-athletes what is appropriate to post, but also how to handle extreme criticism that can come from thousands of angry fans.
Smart players can use social media to their advantage. They can use their accounts to show their off-field interests, allowing them to build their brand and make the most of the valuable platform they have. And if they get the opportunity to play at the next level, they won’t need agents to find them endorsement deals, the sponsors will come to them.