Some universities are cracking down on student-athletes’ social media use, and many could be walking the line of violating the First and Fourth amendments. Ohio State might be one of them.
OSU’s social media policy requires that student-athletes “may not block or otherwise prevent coaches or athletic department staff members from viewing your site,” according to the most recent student-athlete handbook.
Though this policy is common among many universities, some lawyers say such rules might violate student-athletes’ constitutional rights to free speech.
“If you’re a public school, this (policy) is a clear violation of students’ First and Fourth Amendment rights,” said Bradley Shear, a social media lawyer.
OSU’s policy calls for student-athletes to leave their otherwise-private information open to coaches or staff. This could mean that a student-athlete would have to “friend” a coach or compliance officer, allowing them access to privatized material. OSU’s rules are on a team-by-team basis.
Kala Andrews, OSU assistant director of compliance in the athletic department, said the policy works under the belief that if student-athletes share something via social media, they do so with the understanding that it’s public information.
“I know it’s team-by-team, if you put something out for the public, then it’s expected that people can follow you,” Andrews said.
Java Nikbakht, a sophomore synchronized swimmer, said she and her teammates are required to add their coach on social media sites and their coach frequently monitors their online presence.
“We are required to friend our coaches and I think (our coach) does monitor,” Nikbakht said. “She definitely goes on and checks our Facebook often.”
Some schools even tell athletes if they don’t grant their coaches access to protected material, eligibility could be affected.
Andrews said while she doesn’t know specific penalties for failing to adhere to a team’s social media policy, she thinks it could have an impact on an athlete’s playing time.
“I could imagine a coach saying if you’re not going to allow us to see your site, then that’s going to be a problem,” Andrews said. “There’s no rules saying you have to play.”
Nikbakht said most athletes follow the policy, even if they disagree with it.
“It would be really scary to (tell a coach you aren’t going to follow the rule), because you’d probably get in trouble,” Nikbakht said. “I think everybody just goes along with it.”
While Shear said OSU’s policy walks the line of legality, other universities are taking even harsher measures. Some are employing outside sources to track athletes’ social media, and in some cases, have access to password-protected material.
Companies like UDiligence and Varsity Monitor claim they do not collect passwords, but rather have athletes download an “app” or “proprietary technology” to collect information.
“The application process is like any other app you would have on your Facebook,” said Kevin Long, CEO of UDiligence. “When an athlete installs that app, the athlete grants us the information to access the information in that account.”
There are also third-party media consultants who search for careless, non-compliant and vulgar posts. Long said they access photos and wall posts on Facebook, but do not access messages and AIM. If these companies find any incriminating material, they are paid to notify coaches and compliance officers.
“They produce these reports and have a risk level for each student, and they send notifications to coaches if students use words like ‘alcohol,'” said Bob Sullivan, an author and reporter who specializes in technology crime for MSNBC.
Colleges like University of North Carolina, University of Kansas and University of Missouri all use this monitoring method.
While OSU does not use one of these monitoring sites, Andrews said OSU is rewriting its policy on social media, and she wouldn’t be surprised if OSU began using one of these monitoring sites.
“It’s something we might do down the road,” Andrews said. “Being at Ohio State, we have over 1,000 athletes. You would literally need to hire a professional to monitor all the students.”
But Nikbakht said she would take issue if OSU were to use a monitoring site because it crosses a line if students follow the guidelines that are already established.
“I would think that’s somewhat an invasion of privacy. I think if you follow your (team) guidelines, then I think that’s a little too far.” Nikbakht said.
With all the recent news stories about athletes getting caught for compliance issues or illegal activity about social media, Sullivan said he understands why schools would want to use a third party for help.
“It’s a hard issue because there are so many issues of athletes embarrassing themselves,” Sullivan said.
As many athletes are in the public eye, they represent the greater image of the university and a monitoring site would allow OSU to protect that image, Andrews said.
“From an image and welfare standpoint, if there is something inappropriate that other people can see that is not a good image for the team or university,” Andrews said. “They want to let us know and take it down.”
Shear credits schools for trying to get a handle on social media, but he said some are going about it the wrong way.
“You wouldn’t want a school director to barge into your off-campus apartment,” Sullivan said.
But Long said the purpose of monitoring sites is not to get athletes in trouble, but rather to work with the university and its athletes to improve social media presence.
“We’re not a ‘gotcha’ tool. We’re a mentoring and educational tool,” Long said. “We feel it’s really a partnership with the athlete and the athletic department.”
The NCAA recently stated colleges should only monitor public information if there is reasonable suspicion, and the NCAA has remained silent about private and password-protected material. Shear said that legally, this was a smart move.
“From a legal liability standpoint, to have schools monitor all this stuff would put schools in an awkward legal liability,” Shear said.
Andrews said the social media rules for OSU could be changing in the near future, but for now, she will continue to follow the current set of rules.
“As a compliance officer, you just work as the rules are,” Andrews said. “For me if the rules are this, I have to follow it. If it’s not, I don’t care.”