While most college campuses have caught on to the importance of social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, not all colleges are prepared for the potential consequences that can occur in 140 characters or less.
Such advances in communications is a topic of concern for college athletics departments. Social networks are appealing to student athletes, serving as a way to interact with fans, celebrate in victory and vent in defeat. However, for the most part, Twitter is unfiltered — a form of broadcast that can be seen by anyone willing to look. In some cases, this has led to serious damage to college athletics programs.
Last month, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) placed a 2012-2013 postseason ban on the football program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill due to an investigation revealing that several players on the 2010 team had received impermissible benefits. At the center of it was Marvin Austin, a former defensive lineman for North Carolina and current NFL defensive tackle for the New York Giants, whose tweets in 2010 of conspicuous spending became one of the initial factors in the NCAA investigation.
The pitfalls of social media have already caused many programs to ban their student athletes from Twitter entirely. College head coaches and university compliance offices are forced to make up their own rules because the NCAA currently has no all-encompassing policy regarding social media. It is up to the universities to determine how much regulation is required for their student athletes.
Mel Franks, a senior associate athletics director at Cal State Fullerton, said there is no established social media policy at CSUF to his knowledge. The school uses social media primarily as a promotional medium. Still, the compliance office has discussed Twitter-related issues with student athletes.
“With regards to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, all student athletes receive education on the matter at the beginning of each academic year,” said Michelle Tapper, a CSUF assistant athletic director and compliance director. “Studentathletes are representatives of not only themselves and their teams, but also intercollegiate athletics and the university as a whole. In that respect, student athletes are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that positively represents (Titan) athletics and the university.”
D.J. Seeley, a guard on the men’s basketball team and a University of California, Berkeley transfer, was one of the many athletes briefed on CSUF’s stance on social media.
“The compliance people have talked to us about Twitter,” said Seeley. “They just told us that if we have anything that has affiliations with CSUF portrayed on our pages that there are certain restrictions that we cannot break or we will get in trouble.”
While strict social media policies, which include monitoring and accessing accounts, would curtail the amount of potentially harmful online activity, it is difficult for public universities. Public institutions are bound by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects students from unreasonable search and seizure.
However, that didn’t stop the University of North Carolina from enacting a strong social media policy for its student athletes.
According to UNC’s 2011-2012 policy, “each team must identify at least one coach or administrator who is responsible for having access to and regularly monitoring the content of team members’ social networking sites and postings.” The policy has stirred up some controversy, as the wording implies administration is allowed to access student accounts, which would violate privacy laws.
CSUF hasn’t implemented strict regulation on social media, but if, or when, it does, it won’t be met with unanimous praise.
“I would be mad about it because everyone should have the freedom to speak their mind without punishment,” Seeley said.
However, not all monitoring is done negatively. Baylor University, a private institution that has received national attention due to its success in numerous sports programs, has a thorough monitoring system in place.
“I absolutely think it’s essential to monitor the social media activity of not only your student athletes, but those involved within your athletic department,” said Chris Yandle, Baylor’s associate director of athletic communications. “It’s about protecting your brand. And, in all honesty, the athletic department is the ‘front porch’ of a university. With TV and Internet coverage, athletics are the first thing you see. Sadly, many of the recent athletic stories have revolved around what athletes and coaches have been doing on social media. Monitoring, in my opinion, is crucial, but effective monitoring doesn’t have to risk someone’s privacy or be over-regulating.”
Baylor has embraced its student athletes’ use of social media.
“We want them to express themselves — in proper ways, of course — and show fans a different side of them,” Yandle said.
Questions about privacy and censorship have caused debate and have moved to the forefront on current issues.
“Social media is here to stay, so I don’t think censorship or a ban is the right thing (to do),” Yandle said. “We have to embrace it. We can’t close our eyes and pretend it’s not there. Proper education on social media use will do more for the greater good than cutting it off.”
He clarifies that embracing social media is different from allowing student athletes free reign on what they can say. College athletes are young and can be expected to make mistakes, but there are easy preventative measures.
“You have to be smart,” Yandle said. “Remember the saying, ‘you are what you eat?’ Now, you are what you tweet.”