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June 25, 2020

Censorship in College Athletics, What You Need to Know

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Every prospective athlete should know that college recruiters comb through the social media profiles of the athletes they recruit. Even if a high school athlete dreams of making it to college, prospects need to be careful about what they post online. A great (and also horrible) example of what can happen if high school athletes post inappropriate content lies in Sean Glaze, whose admission to Xavier University was revoked last week after he posted racist content on his Twitter account.

Although athletes need to be aware of what they post on social media before they make it into the NCAA, they also need to be aware of a controversial practice within collegiate athletics: athletic censorship. Last week, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz highlighted this practice when he said that in light of the death of George Floyd, he would be lifting the social media ban he’s placed on his athletes for years. According to The Daily Iowan, Ferentz originally planned to allow his players one pre-approved tweet per month, but instead lifted restrictions completely. 

If a social media ban, or a one-screened-tweet-per-month rule sounds Orwellian (it is), just know that athletic censorship is more common than many people think. 

There’s a list of affluent coaches who have either monitored or outright banned social media use on their teams. For example, former South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier once defended banning his athletes from using Twitter, saying: “A couple of guys put some sort of nasty stuff on there in the summer…so we said, ‘You don’t need to do that anymore. Let your girlfriend or pal down the street do all the tweeting or whatever it is.”

In 2014, former Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino banned his athletes from social media use, because “It poisons their minds.”

Likewise, University of Connecticut women’s basketball coaches, Geno Auriemma and Chris Dailey ban social media use during the season. Daily argued that “We’re saving [athletes] from themselves. There are adults and actors and athletes who at an emotional moment tweet something that you can never get back. It’s one less distraction they have to worry about,” while Auriemma simply said: “One of the problems with the Internet is every stupid person that we didn’t realize was stupid we now know is stupid because the Internet has given them an opportunity to prove that.” Dailey further defended his position, stating: “It’s like parenting. Parents I hear all the time say you have to pick your battles.” 

Although some argue that banning adult athletes from using social media violates their First Amendment rights (myself included), it’s not a bad idea for high-profile athletes in particular to stay off social media on their own terms for their own sake. It’s not the fault of the athlete, but rather, the voraciousness of college sports fans that might necessitate athletes taking a technology break or logging off completely.

For example, in 2013, Alabama kicker Cade Foster received thousands of death threats overnight when his backup missed a field goal that was returned for a game-winning touchdown in the Iron Bowl. Foster himself didn’t even mess up the kick, but fans were angry that he had botched three of them in previous games, which led Nick Saban to play a freshman in Foster’s place.

In 2015, Michigan punter Blake O’Neil received death threats after botching a punt against Michigan State that cost the Wolverines the game. Last May, Addison Choi, a former college soccer player and avid sports gambler faced criminal charges after he sent dozens of death threats and racist messages to college and professional athletes when they failed to perform. 

Social media can be an incredibly positive outlet for college athletes who have four years to use their unique platform for societal good. However, these platforms can also be banned or regulated by coaches (there are no NCAA rules governing social media use for athletes). Furthermore, social media can be detrimental to the mental health and well-being of college athletes when fans, who are always braver behind screens than they are face-to-face, turn on the players and teams they profess to love. These are all valid points for prospects to keep in mind while navigating the recruiting process, and if your online platforms are valuable to you, it is prudent to ask your potential-future coach about any bans or limitations s/he may have over social media use.

For more NCAA policy updates, follow Katie Lever on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever

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