A few months into his inaugural season at Washington State University last fall, the football coach Mike Leach faced yet another controversy. Plagued by allegations that he had mistreated a player while coaching at Texas Tech and a reputation as a bit of a loose canon, Leach was about to wade into what some people consider another form of abuse—barring players from using Twitter.
Reporters from a student news service had provided Leach with evidence that several players apparently posted messages on a social-media site that included negative terms for women and African-Americans. Leach imposed an immediate ban for the entire Cougar football team. “If after today you see anything on Twitter from our team—and I don’t care if it says ‘I love life’—I would like to see it because I will suspend them,” he announced.
Leach’s decision is nothing new. In 2010, Chris Petersen (Boise State University) decided that intercollegiate athletics and social media were incompatible. The next year, Steve Spurrier (University of South Carolina) and Turner Gill (University of Kansas) followed suit. Then Mississippi State’s basketball coach, Rick Stansbury, took away his team’s tweeting privileges after a player criticized the team on Twitter. “The reason we decided to not allow our players to have a Twitter account is we feel like it will prevent us from being able to prepare our football program to move forward. Simple as that.” Tell that to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose road to NCAA punishment started with a tweet from a player about his lavish lifestyle. UNC would ultimately lose 15 football scholarships—that’s less than 10 characters per scholarship.
Outright bans have not been the only approach. Some institutions have suspended players for tweets. A Lehigh University student-athlete was disciplined for retweeting a racial slur; at Western Kentucky University, officials suspended a player who did the unthinkable—criticizing oh-so-important fans in social media. At Boston College, a women’s soccer player was suspended because of several tweets about Jerry Sandusky.
Other colleges are employing commercial monitoring services like Varsity Monitor, Centrix Social (recently acquired by Varsity Monitor), and UDiligence to flag the use of a growing number of taboo words. According to The Chronicle, the University of Louisville nixes references to drugs, sex, and alcohol; the University of Kentucky, agents’ names.
Not surprisingly, critics denounce these practices as a violation of players’ First Amendment rights. “You cannot create a prior restraint on your students because they may do something or say something that may create embarrassment” for your institution, Bradley Shear, a Maryland-based lawyer and social-media expert has argued. “If you start banning students from doing this, what kind of lesson are you teaching students?”
UDiliegence’s founder, Kevin Long, defends his product—also as a teaching moment. “It’s not at all a disciplinary tool,” he says. “It’s meant to provide a teaching moment, a mentoring moment to the student.”
We’ve certainly heard a lot over the last few years about the need to teach students more about using social media (not least recently in the wake of the confusing story of Manti Te’o and his Internet “girlfriend”). But that is missing a key point in all this. Athletic programs adopt Twitter education less because they fear what will be said than that they fear the power of student-athletes to say anything, to be individuals, and to manage their own futures.
The ultimate fear is losing control of players. It is the possibility that student-athletes will find a voice to speak their frustrations over their exploitation, to question the value of their scholarships, or demand a say in how their images are used.
The technology itself is the threat. Professional athletes like Brendon Ayanbadejo have used Twitter to advocate for gay marriage; Rashard Mendenhall posted his criticism of celebrations of the death of Osama bin Laden. LeBron James tweeted a photo of himself and his Miami Heat teammates wearing “hoodies,” to show support for the slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Last summer some U.S. Olympic track-and-field stars took to Twitter to protest a rule that prevented them from advertising for non-Olympic sponsors. But collegiate athletes have been wary of embracing digital activism. Bans are working.
The greatest threat to today’s colleges and universities isn’t the embarrassment of racist or sexist tweets. While those moments don’t make a university look good, athletic programs could simply dismiss such incidences as the acts of immature college students or teachable moments. Better yet, they could support the development of social-media training, which could include lessons about racist, sexist, and homophobic speech. If universities are afraid of racism or sexism, maybe they should deal with the culture of sport and the university as a whole. If they are afraid players will inadvertently out NCAA violations, maybe they ought to focus on those violations, rather on the ways they are made public.
The greatest fear came out in the open when Cardale Jones, an Ohio State student-athlete, 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.” Highlighting hypocrisy, now that’s something in need of policing.
David J. Leonard is an associate professor and chair of the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University.