By Parrish Alford and Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
The rush to join Twitter, Facebook and other social media websites could possibly include trampling on First Amendment rights.
That’s why most college coaches and administrators proceed cautiously in setting boundaries – if any – as their athletes join in the very public conversation.
With just about anyone.
Early last week, Ole Miss freshman football player C.J. Johnson killed his Twitter account, a decision university officials say he made by himself.
The decision was made, however, after Johnson posted content university officials deemed “inappropriate.” Johnson allegedly posted material that was sexual in nature. He met with members of the football coaching staff and athletic administration before making his decision.
Some coaches ban their players from using Twitter.
Boise State football coach Chris Peterson generated national headlines last summer by making Twitter off limits for team members as the Broncos approached the 2010 season with a real chance to become the first non-BCS team to win a national championship.
Mississippi State basketball coach Rick Stansbury has joined the “no Twitter” camp, at least during basketball season.
That isn’t the case at Ole Miss, where the administration, so far, has adopted a policy of education and observation.
Johnson is believed to be the first Ole Miss athlete to leave Twitter after a publicized event.
“We’re not saying they can’t do this,” said Jamil Northcutt, the assistant athletics director for internal operations. “At the same time, we want them to understand there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.”
From a legal standpoint, the question may be about who determines right and wrong.
In a controlled team environment, there could be any number of civil rights violated, not just freedom of expression.
Coaches in all sports, under the microscope to produce victories, are given wide latitude to serve as the authority figure for their teams.
As players advance in their careers, the freedom to “tweet” weighed against the chance to move on to the professional level may not be worth the fight. College coaches have an impact on how professional scouts and talent evaluators view players.
In short, there may be a lot to lose for the student who wants to fight to stay on Twitter, and it would be a difficult fight to win in court as well.
“I’d be surprised if they (federal court) would restrict a coach’s authority like that. Students do have free- speech protection, but it has to be balanced against a legitimate concern by the university to protect its football program,” Tupelo attorney Jim Waide said.
The athlete has rights, however. If he is told by a university official to end his Twitter account, the dividing line may be on exactly who instructed the athlete in this manner.
“If there’s some administrator who says I don’t agree with what the guy is saying here, that’s one thing, that would be a First Amendment violation,” Waide said. “But if you have a coach saying it’s harming team morale and therefore our ability to have a winning team, that’s a totally different matter.”
Mississippi State has taken greater measures the past year to monitor its athletes on social networks, and further measures are probably in store.
MSU gathers all of its athletes into Humphrey Coliseum at the beginning of the fall term to discuss the proper use of social media, and information about the topic is included in the student-athlete handbook.
“They need to understand it’s public communication, it’s not private communication,” athletics director Scott Stricklin said.
He said the athletic staff has had conversations about how to “strengthen” the approach and give the athletes more guidance in that area.
“Whether it’ll be a separate program, I don’t know yet. That’s something that we plan on sitting down and talking about soon.”
Northcutt leads the social media education process at Ole Miss. It also involves meeting with athletes early each school year, but in the case of Johnson, a newcomer who is attending summer school, the group meeting may not have come soon enough.
“We realize we need to start talking with them a little earlier,” Northcutt said.
Northcutt talks to Ole Miss athletes about their lives five years down the road, not just five weeks, and how an image they craft now can follow them for years to come.
“You can do things right a million times, but when you do it wrong once, that’s where the eyes go,” he said.
Northcutt counsels Ole Miss athletes about “negative” language on Twitter and Facebook, which he defines as foul language, use of alcohol, drugs, “anything like that.” Brett said his office keeps an eye out for two things: NCAA compliance issues and objectionable content.
Compliance issues come into play if athletes write about gambling, communication with sports agents or similar topics.
Athletes are also encouraged not to air negative personal feelings for their coaches or teammates.
“We don’t want anybody doing those things that would have an effect on their future outside of sports,” Northcutt said.
At times an athlete can get in trouble by doing the right thing. Northcutt pointed to a case in which an athlete, at a school he did not name, received an unsolicited pornographic picture in his email. He forwarded the picture to his coach, wanting to do more than just delete it from his email, and was cited for trafficking child pornography.
At MSU, Stricklin follows every athlete on Twitter, as does compliance director Bracky Brett. Since the fall, the department has used a software program called Socialverse that tracks each athlete’s Twitter and Facebook account and sends MSU officials an e-mail notifying them when a certain key word pops up in a tweet or status update.
“You develop a list of key words to look for, like agent, and things like that. There’s a huge list of words,” Brett said. “It’s not a fool-proof deal, but at least it is a monitoring tool along with us as we go through our Twitter accounts, keeping an eye on things like that.”
When a problem arises, Brett said, the head coach of that athlete’s team is notified.
Most of MSU’s coaches – with the notable exception of Stansbury – have Twitter and Facebook accounts, too, and also help monitor.
Stricklin said there is one person, whom he declined to name, in charge of the monitoring process, but it’s certainly a team effort.
“This whole social network monitoring is new, so we’re trying to be as proactive as possible and just try to keep an eye on Facebook, Twitter,” Brett said.
Watch what you tweet
Not all problems are solved with education.
Exhibit A is the case of former MSU basketball player Ravern Johnson, who after a loss to Alabama in February complained on Twitter about Stansbury and MSU fans.
Teammate Renardo Sidney joined the mix when he “re-tweeted” Johnson’s message to his own followers.
That quickly turned into a hot story and prompted Stansbury to ban his players from Twitter for the remainder of the season, although he has allowed them to use it during the offseason. Johnson was suspended two games; Sidney was not punished.
Johnson’s case is something Stricklin can hold up as an example of how things can go wrong with social media.
“Unless you have a protected account where you’re only allowing certain people to see it, part of it’s just education of what it is, why it’s important that they treat it as if they’re standing in front of a crowded room of people holding a microphone,” Stricklin said.
A protected account allows the user to restrict access to their Twitter and Facebook pages. MSU officials encourage that but don’t require it of athletes.
“We make sure they understand that if they’re going to be talking about things they don’t want to be seen out in the public view, they probably need to consider that route,” Stricklin said.
The majority of athletes are cautious in what they say, and some talk only with people they know – or at least that’s what they think they’re doing.
“I love Twitter,” former Ole Miss basketball player Trevor Gaskins said. “But if I don’t know you, I don’t talk to you.”
The Twitter process can be confusing, however, and users can easily send a reply to all other users by hitting a wrong key stroke.
Northcutt is hopeful that Johnson will learn from this experience and that the school will continue to guide its athletes without requiring them to give up their social media pursuits.
“A lot of our kids are young, and it’s our job to point these things out,” Northcutt said. “When an athlete comes on campus, he’s coming from high school and may not have knowledge of just how big this is. These guys are in a different media market now with people watching. They have a high profile now with a lot of eyes on them.
“People are watching what they do.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or email@example.com.