SBJ/November 14-20, 2011/Opinion

Forcing social media silence not the answer for colleges

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Over the last year, a growing number of college athletic departments have begun to unnecessarily punish their student athletes for statements made through various social media channels, particularly Twitter and Facebook.

Western Kentucky University in October suspended running back Antonio Andrews for tweets that criticized the loyalty of WKU fans, who have been visibly absent during the Hilltoppers’ 4-26 run over the last three seasons. Earlier this year, Mississippi State basketball player Ravern Johnson was suspended for inappropriate tweets concerning his role on the team and lack of touches. There are at least a dozen similar cases involving disciplinary action in response to athletes’ tweets over the past two years at colleges across the U.S.

All the more disconcerting is the trend of systematic prohibition of student athletes from using any form of social media during their respective seasons of competition. Some colleges go a step further and implement outright bans even when school is not in session.

After a disappointing loss to Wake Forest in early October, the Florida State athletics department banned the use of Twitter, citing efforts to eliminate distractions and a concern that athletes were being negatively affected by “hate tweets.” This past spring, fellow ACC member North Carolina also placed a restriction on athletes’ use of social media in reaction to an improper benefits scandal that influenced the firing of head football coach Butch Davis prior to the start of the 2011 season.

There is little question that universities face an uphill battle in monitoring their student athletes’ interaction with the general public, particularly with the Internet and other new forms of communication that make it easier than ever to broadcast every part of their lives to the world via the click of a button on their computer, phone or tablet. Yet almost every institution in the country has done little to nothing to be proactive about educating its athletes on what they should and should not be communicating over such channels. Instead, they have taken a reactionary approach that retroactively punishes student athletes based on the foolishness of an ignorant few individuals.

Mississippi State suspended Ravern Johnson last season for some inappropriate tweets.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Rather than use the cases outlined above as teachable moments, many institutions have attempted to sweep things under the rug with the hope that the problem would go away by itself. Unfortunately, as history has proved, the suppressing of one channel that individuals use to express themselves results in those individuals finding a new or alternate medium to fill the void.

College athletics has always been a business that is slow to change. Many universities have limited resources and are stretched thin in compliance department budgets. Thus, school administrators and coaches often believe that banning certain unwanted behaviors is the most efficient way to quickly resolve contentious matters. Most proceed in such action without taking into account the First and Fourteenth Amendment issues concerning the restriction of free speech and freedom of expression at public universities.

However, there is little reason why athletic departments cannot invest even limited resources into educating their student athletes on why using social media improperly can negatively affect their university, their team and themselves. The limited resources spent on education will cost less than the amount of time and money spent on restricting speech.

There are many influential individuals with powerful positions in college athletics who argue that a student athlete’s use of social media, specifically Twitter, only serves to hurt his or her interests in succeeding in life. Yet, if student athletes use social media constructively, they can help parlay their popularity in the collegiate realm to build first-class reputations that will follow them beyond their college careers. As the saying goes, “There are over 400,000 NCAA student athletes, and most of us will go pro in something other than sports.” While athletic departments see 400,000 headaches, every one of those athletes has an opportunity to use social media to build a positive public reputation for himself or herself — just like the millions of companies and other individuals who build their online clout on a daily basis.

The argument that social media is a distraction is a feeble one. Athletes have faced pressure from fans, coaches and alumni for generations. The channel that this negative feedback comes through has nothing to do with the student athletes’ abilities to deal with or deflect it. If they are properly conditioned to ignore criticism (as they should have been their entire sports career) or better yet, to use that criticism as a mechanism to become better at their trades, then social media’s easing of access for outsiders to communicate with them should make no negative difference. If a student has difficulty dealing with criticism, and the criticism is directly related to his or her status as an athlete, it is the athletic department’s responsibility to teach the student athlete how to deal with it instead of acting like it can ignore the problem by doing its best job to hide the athlete from the public light.

George Washington once stated, “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” Instead of treating student athletes as dumb individuals, forcing silence upon them as a protective measure in an effort to protect them from being slaughtered by the media, universities should empower those athletes with education and allow them to use their voice to lead. Universities are providing a huge disservice to their student athletes by silencing their speech.n

Jason Belzer (jasonbelzer@gmail.com) and Darren Heitner (heitner@gmail.com) are co-founders of Collegiate Sports Advisors. They can be followed on Twitter @JasonBelzer and @DarrenHeitner.

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