Athletes and Social Media: The Double-Edged Sword

Adam Schefter, ESPN, Jason La Canfora, CBS, and many other sports reporters and media outlets alike depend on social media to get their daily news and stories. 5 years ago, this wasn’t the case at all, as the sports media depended solely on “inside sources” to report on breaking news. Nowadays, we see daily that news stems from directly from a sports personality such as an athlete. Most of the time, the news gained from their personal social media accounts is positive or at least neutral, such as a player confirming themselves that he or she signed with a new team. During the National Football League (NFL) free agency period in March, quite a few reports of signings came directly from the player’s social media account, usually Twitter. There are many other benefits stemming from athletes having social media accounts such as free self-promotion, interacting with fans, and so on. However, athletes don’t always use social media to their or their team’s benefit. There have been many instances of negative news stemming from an athlete’s social media account. In some cases, these instances were a major part of the demise of the athlete’s career. I will examine both sides of the argument- why athletes’ social media usage is positive or negative, by looking at previous history, news, and cases. In addition to this, I wish to examine the rightfulness of teams restricting or banning athletes’ use of social media. From this, I hope to form a conclusion as to whether or not athletes should be active on social media.

The Negatives

We’ll first start with the argument that social media usage harms an athlete or their team more than it helps. As mentioned, there have been many cases of social media posts leading to harmful effects on the individual or their respective team. One such case would be the story of Will Hill, a defensive back for the New York Giants of the NFL. In an article written for Sports Illustrated, Michael McKnight discusses Hill’s Twitter history in 2010 that played a major part in the Florida Gator going undrafted and unsigned. Hill’s tweets were about his “large sexual appetite, an affinity for “sour” (pungent marijuana), unfiltered restaurant reviews, and blunt medical queries.” McKnight continues, “Just as Hill was declaring early for the NFL draft, his tweets were confirming rumors that, although talented enough to start for the Gators, he was less interested in this Cover 2 than this one.” Questions of off-field behavior and commitment to the game of football ultimately led to Hill not joining an NFL team after leaving college early. He spent a year in the Arena Football League, and got a tryout with the Giants a year after going undrafted. He ended up making the team and is still on the roster today, but Will Hill’s Twitter usage made his path to the NFL much harder than it had to be and could have ended his career before it even started.

Another case of social media harming an athlete’s career would be the developing story of quarterback Chad Kelly, nephew of Buffalo Bills great Jim Kelly. Chad, who I knew of in high school when he played at a rival high school of mine, has had a history of getting in trouble with his school and team. In high school, after starting as a freshman, he was suspended the last seven games of that season. His sophomore year, after starting five games, Kelly was suspended indefinitely from the team. While social media was not the cause of his suspension, he continued this pattern of behavior when Twitter became popular. After winning a state championship in New York, Kelly wrote and posted two rap songs about himself. (If you want to suffer through them, regretfully click here and here.) Once Chad committed to Clemson in early 2012, he immediately took to Twitter to call out Clemson QB Cole Stoudt, tweeting “Your on the bench of a reason. And i come soon! Just letting you know.” Kelly continued in subsequent tweets explaining how the coaches should prefer him because of his ability to run and throw, and saying Stoudt lacked the “oomph” to push starter Tajh Boyd in practice. Stoudt then responded, with his own tweet saying “I hate those that talk like their the (bleep) when they haven’t done anything yet.” Kelly, of course, responded saying “I’m coming to Clemson to Play my Freshman year I ain’t going just to sit on the bench” and “Everyday im coming to work and be the best!” Bad spelling, grammar, and punctuation aside, Kelly’s Twitter fiasco gave him a negative reputation in the eyes of many college football fans before he even enrolled at Clemson. A couple of weeks ago, Kelly was dismissed from the Clemson football team, partly due to his verbal arguments with coaches on the sidelines, and partly due to his negative social media presence. You can read more about Chad in this Bleacher Report article.

These are two of the more extreme examples of social media hurting an athlete’s career, but that doesn’t mean that lesser offenses can’t harm a career. In an article from USA Today, Nicole Auerbach explains what Virginia Commonwealth athletic director Ed McLaughlin and his staff lookout for. “McLaughlin and his staff are mostly worried about obvious no-nos, like photos of underage athletes drinking. With more minor transgressions – such as tweeting something they probably shouldn’t have in the heat of the moment after a game – McLaughlin said VCU deals with them on a case-by-case basis to hopefully catch the mistake quickly and not let it turn into something bigger.” McLaughlin says, “We tell them all the time when you put something on the Internet, it is forever.” He continues, “We try to stress the things that could be inappropriate, things that could be harmful or embarrassing for you, your family or your team. We try to stress those things and teach them about them so when they get in the working world they don’t make a tragic mistake that’s really, really going to hurt them.” These things that McLaughlin looks out for daily happen all the time across the sports world, whether collegiate or professional. While these offenses aren’t as serious as the stories of Will Hill or Chad Kelly, they can still have a negative impact on an athlete or their team.

The Positives

So, if social media has all of these pitfalls, and using it incorrectly can put a major dent in an athlete’s career, why even bother using it in the first place? It’s simple; there are still many good reasons for an athlete to be active on social media. Michael Gaio of Athletic Business writes about a seminar from Edgewood College director of athletic communications David Petroff. He gives 5 examples of positive things that athletes should do on social media-

  1. Say thank you. This is always a good option. Teach student-athletes to take time to thank those who support them. Fans, teammates and family for example.
  2. Support others. Student-athletes can provide a positive example for other students by sending positive messages about their peers in other sports or activities at school.
  3. Share news and humor. Social media is meant to be fun. Join in conversations and share things you find interesting or entertaining.
  4. Engage in discussion with those you admire. Petroff discussed how prior to social media, it was difficult to interact or even hear from famous people that student-athletes admire. But now, they can follow them on Twitter and learn what they’re talking about and even interact with them.
  5. Post anything consistent with your personal brand. Again, how do you want to present yourself in public?

Social media can be used by athletes as a free tool for positive publicity, support, and promotion. For example, this is what @LVCathletics is all about. The best Twitter account out of all teams in the MAC in terms of number of followers, The LVC athletics account tweets daily about LVC sports events, such as an upcoming game or match, with details of location and time. They tweet about news regarding LVC athletes, such as someone winning a player of the week award. The account also retweets athletes that have good things to say, such as members of the football team (including me) on the day that we got our championship rings.

I mention the LVC athletics account because it follows the above suggestions from David Petroff. If athletes, and not just those here at LVC, are following the model set by Petroff and LVC athletics, for example, then those athletes are going to see the positive returns from social media. Part of the football team’s popularity this past season, apart from winning the championship itself, stemmed from fans being able to follow the team’s progress easily through social media. By the end of the year, we had so many people interested in LVC football to a point that the football team has probably never seen before, thanks to the promotion on social media.

In addition to social media being a positive for the athletes and teams themselves, as mentioned, social media has become an integral part of sports reporting. I’m not sure that ESPN, its reporters, and other sports news outlets alike could survive today if social media just disappeared. David Just, a sports reporter for the Dallas Morning News, spoke with Trevor Bell of Texas Tech University about how social media has impacted sports reporting. ”For the media, social media makes it easier in a way because athletes can self report and can get whatever messages they want out to the public, without relying on us,” Just said. “Journalists no longer need to break news as much because athletes break it themselves on Twitter. For example, high school athletes who are ‘addicted’ to Twitter will announce which school they are committing to through this platform.”

This doesn’t apply to just high school athletes, collegiate and professional athletes take to social media to announce news first hand as well. During the NFL free agency period in March, many breaking news stories developed from a tweet from a player that signed to a new team, or in some cases, a player confirming that they did not sign yet despite rumors and reports. We did not see a level of direct interaction with the entire sports world so quickly until social media came about. 5-10 years ago, all sports reporting was done through “inside sources” and team reports. Now, most breaking news stories are reported and seen on Twitter before they make it to TV, Radio, and other mediums. For example, Ryan Clark, (@Realrclark25) the recently signed safety for the Washington Redskins, reported his signing with the team through his Twitter account, before any other news outlet or Twitter account reported it. Players can also use their social media accounts to announce new products, promotions, sponsorships, and etc. Recently, Robert Griffin III, quarterback for the Washington Redskins, revealed a new logo for his sponsor Adidas on his Instagram. Athletes, fans, and media can all benefit from proper social media usage and that’s why we see so many athletes today on social media sites such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Banning Social Media?

When it comes to professional sports teams, most organizations simply frown and deal with it after one of their players causes a problem on a social media platform. Some organizations implement a social media monitoring system that will alert a team if one of their players is tweeting something that is flagged in the system, such as one of many keywords in the topics of sex, drugs, alcohol, violence and race. However, as Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes, these professional organizations do not simply “ban tweeting while games are being played and for a period of time before and after games. They do not ban social media altogether, mostly because Twitter and Facebook postings are protected by the First Amendment.” Some universities and colleges, however, have taken a different stance. Some institutions have a strict ban on in-season social media usage. Fittipaldo says, “Boise State football coach Chris Peterson and New Mexico State football coach DeWayne Walker ban their players from using Twitter in-season. So does former Missouri basketball coach Mike Anderson and Mississippi State basketball coach Rick Stansbury.”

So, why do institutions ban social media anyway? Marcus Hauer, in an article for the Vermont Law Review Journal, reveals motivations from a couple different head football coaches. Turner Gill, the former head football coach for the Kansas Jayhawks, explains, “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.” Steve Spurrier, head football coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, explains in reference to an incident where a tweet was posted about a player getting arrested following a fight, though the claims were false, “Well, we have some dumb, immature players that put crap on their Twitter, and we don’t need that. So the best thing to do is just ban it.”

The question is, is this practice rightful, ethical, or even constitutional? Mary Lou Santovec writes in an article on the issue that “administrators can run headlong into both the NCAA and the First Amendment. As a private group, the NCAA may make rules that are unenforceable at public schools.” She continues, “Public schools must follow the constitutional protections of due process, prevent unreasonable searches and support free speech and free association. Private schools often extend “Constitution-like rights to students through policies and handbook language that may rise to the level of contracts,” said Janet Judge, a sports attorney and president of Sports Law Associates LLC in Cumberland, ME. But they’re not bound by the Constitution.” Thus, essentially, private schools have more freedom to do what they want it comes to their social media policies, but public schools can put bans into effect when “they are seen as reasonable and specific. They must be narrowly tailored to serve a school’s “legitimate, content neutral interests,” according to Judge.” The NCAA doesn’t get involved in social media policies either way, however.

Going back to Mr. Hauer, he argues that these social media bans are unconstitutional because they violate the First Amendment, and for four main reasons (you can read the full arguments of these points in the article, I won’t discuss them here to save space)-

  1. Tinker and the Current Supreme Court Jurisprudence of Public School Restrictions on Student Speech (pg. 421)
  2. College Students Are Likely Granted Greater Speech Protection Than High School Students (pg. 422)
  3. Student-Athletes May Receive Less Constitutional Protection than Non-Athletes (pg. 423)
  4. Social Media Posts Are Not On-Campus Speech When Made Off School Grounds by Students Not Participating in School-Related Activities (pg. 427)

Conclusion

After examining the negatives and positives of athletes maintain social media pages, whether of high school, collegiate, or professional level, and the rightfulness and constitutionality of social media bans by universities and colleges, I come to the conclusion that athletes should be allowed to have any social media account that they want. To me, there are more positives in having social media than there are negatives. These athletes should not have have season long bans imposed on them, as they will probably be ruled unconstitutional in the future, as they violate the First Amendment, as argued by Marcus Hauer. Just because some select few made some bad decisions, doesn’t mean that an entire team should be punished for a season’s length. That being said, the ban of tweeting during games and matches and a set amount of time before and after is still appropriate to reduce the amount of emotion filled tweets that are regretted the next day.

The main problem with athletes and social media in my opinion, especially at the high school and collegiate levels, is that the athletes are not educated enough about the pitfalls and dangers of social media. These individuals do not realize that their misjudgment on social media can have serious consequences on not only themselves, but their teams, schools, and organizations. Schools need educate their athletes about how to properly use social media, perhaps through a seminar similar to David Petroff’s. They need to use previous real-world examples, such as Will Hill or Chad Kelly, to really drive home the possible severity of irresponsible social media use. Education is the solution and key to maximizing social media usage by athletes, not outright bans.

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One thought on “Athletes and Social Media: The Double-Edged Sword

  1. Ryan, I definitely think that athletes need to be careful about what they are posting on their social media sites. Whether they are just high school students looking to play at the college level or even professional athletes, what they say and do on social media influences anyone who follows them. Athletes, like celebrities, need to be careful about what kind of reputation they are posting.

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