College Athletics: A Fuel for the Social Media Fire
Social Media has spread into nearly every aspect of college life. In the far-reaching, financially viable, much ballyhooed, and deeply scrutinized realm of College Athletics, Social Media is blazing like a fire. As a few controversies over the last few years demonstrate, the fire has started, and yes, the fire rises.
When Posts Outpace Pragmatism
Among the thousands of innocuous tweets, non-controversial Facebook posts, and innocent Instagram photos by the majority of student athletes, social media isn’t a problem. When tweets or posts capture athletes in the middle of a community service project, visiting a hospital, or in a glorious competitive moment, then social media is certainly a desirable medium for college athletics. At the other end of the spectrum, there have been firestorms associated with posts by a few athletes who didn’t apply standards of education, thoughtfulness, or common sense. The resulting negative media coverage for athletic programs has left some coaches and compliance officials scrambling to recover from the fallout. A few examples of less than desirable student athlete social media incidents include:
- In 2012, The University of North Alabama removed a football player after a racially charged tweet directed at President Obama;
- The University of Michigan abruptly ended their recruitment of a top New Jersey football prospect in 2012 due to a series of lewd and misogynistic tweets that drew national attention;
- In 2011, former University of Minnesota men’s basketball player Trevor Mbakwe was arrested for violating a restraining order by sending a Facebook post to a woman. Aside from his other legal troubles, Mbakwe also drew national attention for a controversial 2012 Twitter post in which he proclaimed he would repay his scholarship if his team didn’t make the NCAA Tournament;
- A long and painful investigation at the University of North Carolina that led to the firing of Head Football Coach Butch Davis, the resignation of the University’s Chancellor, discovery of shockingly broad and far-reaching academic fraud going back nearly twenty years, and finding of “impermissible benefits” being showered on players by sports agents all began with a series of tweets from former football player Marvin Austin in 2010;
- Cardale Jones, a backup quarterback at The Ohio State University lives in infamy because of a 2012 tweet in which he described attending classes as pointless for football players; and
- In February 2014, just before the publication of this article, Sam Wheeler, a wrestler from Kent State University was indefinitely suspended after a series of offensive tweets using gay slurs. Wheeler’s inappropriate social media rants were about the recent announcement by University of Missouri football player Michael Sam. Sam, who is a potential National Football League (NFL) first round draft pick, announced that he is gay.
Does Prevention Breed Responsibility?
After having direct experience with mishaps such as those described above, college athletics has witnessed a myriad of responses. Some programs, wanting to avoid the public peril that poor social media decisions by athletes can generate, have taken the approach to ban use of social media outright among their teams.
- In 2011, South Carolina Football Coach Steve Spurrier banned his team from using Twitter after a series of player mishaps on social media drew unflattering attention to the program regarding student athlete behavior after incorrectly accusing players of being arrested by police;
- Prior to the 2013 season, Florida State University’s football players initiated a team initiated ban on Twitter, Facebook, & Instagram. The team felt the ban would “eliminate clutter” and distractions like they experienced prior to a 2012 ban on Twitter instituted by head coach Jimbo Fisher;
- In 2011, former New Mexico Men’s Basketball Coach Steve Alford banned his players and new recruits from having a twitter account; and
- Former Boise State Football Head Coach Chris Peterson banned his team from using Twitter in 2010 and dangled removal of other social media forums for the rest of his tenure. However, new Boise State Coach Bryan Harsin has allowed his team to use twitter since he became coach in December of 2013.
Educative Practices Versus Punitive Policies
On my campus, we have avoided any major social media faux pas from our athletes. I largely credit this to the active role that our coaches and Athletic Director play in engaging our athletes, who are an overall positive and responsible group of students. Instead of taking a punitive approach to restrict social media, our Athletic Department leadership is requiring all of our student athletes to participate in a session on digital identity later this month. The value in this type of educational approach is that as social media forums change frequently, there is consistent learning that stays on pace with the rapid growth by teaching responsibility. One effective way to defeat the many arguments about the constitutionality of social media bans and possible controversy is to focus on educating players and establishing creative systems to monitor online behavior after setting clear standards.
In 2012, two of college’s greatest sports rivals, the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky shared headlines for utilizing software that monitors their athletes on social media. The auto-tracking software used by each university monitors hundreds of restricted words and expressions on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and MySpace for their student athlete accounts.
Companies such as UDiligence and Varsity Monitor (formerly Centrix Social) monitor inappropriate social media use. In the company’s website description UDiligence offers services to continuously monitor student athlete’s social networks for “careless social network posts” that may cause damaging and embarrassing media coverage, or damage a student, coach, or athletic director’s reputation. UDiligence claims that their company “performs the social network monitoring tasks more efficiently and effectively than an army of grad assistants, interns or assistant coaches could ever hope to by providing 24/7/365 coverage.”
Varsity Monitor describes its social media education as “on-site and web-based education on athlete social media use for leading athletic departments and teams across the country.” Varsity Monitor offers athletes the “tools they need to maximize social media opportunities while giving athletic administrators the tools they need to perpetually educate their athletes.”
A few campuses have excellent examples of infusing social media into their athletic operation, while offering policies that rest on educating and setting clear standards for student athletes. A few highlights include:
- The University of Louisville’s Athletic Program offers com, which is a social media hub to connect to all the University’s official athletic pages and twitter pages for their coaches. The University of Florida has a similar athletics social media hub;
- The regrettable tweet mentioned above by Ohio State football player Cardale Jones is also the subject in a Freshman Experience Textbook at the University of Mississippi. In a First Year Experience Course that offers best practice points on how to transition to college, including proper social media behavior Jones is included as an example of behavior to avoid;
- The University of Michigan implemented a controversial social media policy in 2012 that requires athletes to give all social media account information to the Athletics compliance office;
- In addition to a specific athletics social media policy at Vanderbilt University, there is also a comprehensive how-to (and how not to) social media guide that applies to their entire campus community;
- In 2011, The University of North Carolina took an educative approach after the issues in 2010 by introducing a Social Media Policy for Athletes which outlines detailed examples of unacceptable behavior and delineates very specific punishments for failure to comply; and
- This presentation from the NCAA National Convention offers Social Media Best Practices & Strategies for Athletic Departments.
The outcomes from a 2013 College Sports Information Directors of America survey offer a robust look at how colleges and universities are training student athletes and coaches on social media. Among the report’s findings, 56% of member institutions that completed the survey do not offer social media training for their student athletes while at the same time over half have had to remove a student athlete or coach’s social media post.
This survey demonstrates the need for expansive efforts in training, education, and clear policies about social media in college athletics. While there is not one perfect answer for all social media challenges, my recommendation is to develop a policy based on education and a system of monitoring that helps athletes and coaches avoid the post that could become a nightmare. I am certain that most coaches, athletes, and compliance administrators who have experienced backlash, embarrassment, and negative attention due to poor social media choices would agree, put the fire out before it begins.