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Is Monitoring Athletes’ Social Media Use Lawful?

by Nick Thompson | University of Missouri

F Posted in: Sports and Culture P Posted on: April 24, 2012
Screen shot 2012-04-23 at 7.22.33 PM Image courtesy of Flickr

Nowadays, most sports fans are told that they are missing out on the fun if they do not have a Twitter account. And frankly, it’s true. The No. 2 most popular social media site has become the steadiest stream of information and analysis about games and other happenings in the sports world every day.

College athletes themselves have shown just as much of a desire to be a part of the conversation. Athletes tweet daily about games, practices, and experiences on campus. Offensive linemen tweet pictures of their gargantuan lunches. Followers always knew what was going on with Kentucky via now-graduate Terrence Jones in tweets that were often 40 characters or less. University of Missouri guard Kim English even used Twitter to hitchhike back to Columbia after arriving at the airport in St. Louis. Social networking websites have undeniably led to an exciting, personal dialogue between players, fans, and all those involved in collegiate athletics.

However, social networking can also get athletes, coaches, programs and institutions into hot water. In October, Western Kentucky running back Antonio Andrews was suspended for tweeting about the school’s fans. Lehigh wide receiver Ryan Spadola was suspended for retweeting a racial slur. In January, high school cornerback Yuri Wright’s sexually and racially explicit tweets cost him a college scholarship. Just last month, the NCAA handed North Carolina a one-year bowl ban and took away 15 scholarships after discovering nine major violations. The investigation was kicked off by a tweet.

Thanks to situations like these, many schools have begun monitoring athletes’ social networking usage to varying degrees. Some programs demand that athletes “friend” coaches or administration members. Others have begun to hire private companies to monitor athletes’ usage. Some schools, like the University of Arizona, have demanded that athletes make their profiles private on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and other social media platforms. At some schools, athletes have even been required to surrender their usernames and passwords. Some (including Kent State and Loyola of Chicago) have even gone one step further, completely banning all athletes from Facebook.

Although social networking can further enhance the already riveting discourse surrounding college athletics, it can have serious implications. Statements by players on the sites, regardless of intention, are there for all fans and followers to see. Athletes can make statements that incriminate a program or university. Statements that complain or suggest dissatisfaction with playing time or coaching strategy may discredit or undermine a team’s goals or chemistry. Whereas complaints about a teammate or coach were once confided within another teammate or friend, they can now be heard by the rest of an information-hungry universe. It’s hard to argue with college coaches that are instituting in-season bans of Twitter or Facebook, or asking their athletes to stay off the sites altogether.

So is sanctioning athletes’ social network usage or requiring personal information constitutional? Is it wrong to hold athletes to a set standard as mandated by a coach or athletic department? Does social network usage detract from the locker room environment or from the mission of the athletic department or university?

These are the types of questions being asked when deciding whether or not to monitor athletes. The debate centers around the constitutionality of the actions some schools are beginning to take, as college students in general obviously have First Amendment rights.

Media lawyer and former Ohio University hockey player Jonathan Peters discussed this issue. Peters is the Frank Martin Fellow at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and is earning a PhD studying the First Amendment. He says that, although most speech by college students is protected, some argue that the case should be different for college athletes, who represent the university at-large and have profiles viewed by donors and fans. Peters said coaches may feel they can regulate athletes’ speech, because they have offered them a scholarship. However, according to Peters, this is an unconstitutional condition, because it serves as a prior restraint on speech.

Supreme Court cases involving speech are often decided based on a test of strict scrutiny. Peters said that for a restriction on speech to pass this test, it must meet a compelling state interest and must be narrowly tailored to that interest. From a constitutional law standpoint,  a restriction on athletes’ speech is likely unconstitutional.

“I can’t imagine a court accepting that as a compelling state interest,” Peters said.

Facebook statuses and tweets are undoubtedly a form of free speech. From a purely legal standpoint, the First Amendment allows athletes to say almost anything they want. But surely some coaches want a place to draw the line. So the discussion reaches another crux. Athletes’ free speech is certainly lawful, but should they use social networking sites, and with what limitations, if any?

The short answer is that if the sites are going to be allowed, they should serve as an exercise in moderation for the athletes who choose to make use of them. Kim English has earned a reputation as an enlightening athlete to follow on Twitter. English interacts with fans, his teammates, and other athletes and affiliates of the university in a positive and tactful manner in his tweets. But even English has been ever so subtle in publicly claiming a disdain for Missouri’s former head coach, Mike Anderson.

Peters said a problematic tweet by an athlete is usually a sign of a bigger issue. If athletes’ tweets reflect negatively on the university or expose a compliance issue, it is obvious that the problem occurred and should be dealt with internally. The 140 characters themselves are not the issue.

Chad Moller, spokesman for the University of Missouri football team, said that, at Mizzou, each coaching staff is responsible for monitoring their athletes, but that Mizzou athletes are not given any specific guidelines for their social network use.

“We don’t have specific rules, but this falls under the general expectation that how our student-athletes represent themselves in social media forums is no different than how they should conduct themselves in the public,” Moller said.

The final say on social network use by athletes should be left to the coaches, who are responsible for preparing their teams to compete at a high level. Coaches should enforce team rules that allow athletes to post freely, but also require them to comply with external monitoring by the athletic department or coaching staff. Social media usage can become quite a distraction, and coaches may want more control of their athletes’ attention.

For the most part, even the most active of tweeters do not seem to be causing any harm. A sampling of Terrence Jones’ tweets of “Good afternoon everyone” or “We in the building!” appear quite simple. Jones didn’t stir up the pot much online when he played for a Kentucky team that won the NCAA championship.

It would seem that with a passive monitoring of usage and the exercise of common sense, athletes and institutions would be able to avoid issues with social media. But with all the issues college athletic programs have been encountering, is it enough?

Nick Thompson Nick Thompson Nick Thompson is a NGJ Sports staff writer and a sophomore journalism student at the University of Missouri. He is studying Convergence Television Reporting.

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