On May 29, 2010, University of North Carolina star defensive tackle Marvin Austin sparked an NCAA investigation into receiving improper benefits after he tweeted, “I live In club LIV so I get the tenant rate. bottles comin like its a giveaway.” On March 12, 2012—nearly two years later— the NCAA concluded its investigation and penalized the football program with a one-year bowl ban and 15 lost scholarships. In the NCAA’s statement, it implied that institutions should be tracking their student-athletes’ social media if there is “reasonable suspicion of rules violations.”
As representatives of a university, student-athletes, especially those who play high-profile Division I sports, trade part of their individual identity and independence to be part of the team. A Division I coach tells his players what they will eat, when they will sleep, what they will wear, and how they will conduct themselves in public. Universities that control a player’s athletic and—in the case of many athletes on scholarship—academic lives must responsibly walk the blurry line between appropriate regulation and
The damaging potential of Facebook and Twitter is not a recent realization for universities. In March 2006, Northwestern suspended its women’s soccer team after photos of alleged hazing appeared on Facebook. But even then, Northwestern did not ban the players from Facebook, citing free speech and privacy laws. Bradley Shear, a Maryland lawyer with expertise in sports and social media, believes that while universities can legally monitor for illegal activities—by drug testing, for example— monitoring student’s online activities for inappropriate, but legal, activities is unconstitutional. Maryland ACLU legislative director Melissa Coretz Goemann notes another legal concern: social media monitoring is against Facebook’s Terms of Service: “You will not share your password… let anyone else access your account or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.”
A coach’s unlimited access to a player’s social network can also have damaging consequences for students who want to keep their personal life private. Paradoxically, women’s sports have often been a haven where women who don’t fit conventional norms find acceptance, while also sheltering rampant homophobia in terms of stereotypes and negative recruiting. Imagine if Rene Portland, the publically homophobic, longtime women’s basketball coach at Penn State (who cut players based on perceived sexuality), had been able to access her players’ Facebook profiles? Players, just like any other student, should be able to decide how much of their private lives they share.
Yet universities are increasingly and invasively monitoring their student-athletes’ social media presence. Some, like Nebraska, pay $7,000 to $10,000 per year to hire companies to keep “an online eye on their athletes.” Others, like UNC, require athletes to “friend” their coach on Facebook, so they can access their password-protected content. In some cases, coaches forbid players from using social media altogether, both to avoid distractions and potential scandals: Louisville Coach Rick Pitino bans his players from using Twitter during basketball season.
Last December, the NCAA suspended standout Lehigh* wide receiver Ryan Spadola for tweeting a racist slur. According to the Baltimore Sun article, Towson Coach Rob Ambrose, “having seen how Twitter could hurt a team, decided to spend the first few weeks of the offseason monitoring his players’ use of the social media tool and quickly decided to ban it until he felt his players had been properly educated on using it.” That article—and the greater conversation—were about how the university should have been monitoring their athletes’ social media. Instead, shouldn’t the conversation be about how Ryan Spadola shouldn’t be using racial slurs and about how Marvin Austin shouldn’t be accepting perks in the first place?
By focusing solely on the role of social media in these scandals, the NCAA and universities are missing the point. Something’s rotten in the state of NCAA athletics, and creating an atmosphere of distrust between student-athletes and coaches isn’t going to fix it. If universities want to reform the negative image of college sports, coaches and their players are going to need to do it together – as a team.
*Corrected from original publication