Big League – little speech
College athletes generally have influence when they speak up, but they are often restricted by athletic department speech codes
They announced the boycott through Twitter, vowing not to participate in any football activities until embattled Missouri President Tim Wolfe resigned over perceived inaction toward an inhospitable racial climate.
“The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,’” read a statement included in the tweet, which was published by Missouri defensive back Anthony Sherrils.
The boycott came with a possible price tag for the university — forfeiting the upcoming game against Brigham Young University would have cost the university $1 million.
A day later, another tweet from Sherrils appeared. This time, the picture included white football players, staff and even head football coach Gary Pinkel, who later tweeted the same image from his personal account.
The sign of support was the final blow to the embattled president, who was already weathering a student hunger strike and an encampment of demonstrators occupying the university quad. Wolfe announced his resignation two days later.
The ability to use social media to address a political controversy and even criticize their own institution is a right that many college students take for granted. But the fact that athletes were able to do so without disciplinary consequences is a rarity in college athletics.
A 2014 project by the Student Press Law Center and journalism students at the University of Maryland confirmed that dozens of the NCAA Division I athletic programs restrict student-athletes’ speech on social media. The project revealed that the policies allow administrators to monitor student-athletes’ social media accounts and remove social media content they deem inappropriate.
The policies and punishments can differ between athletic departments, with some programs requiring student-athletes to submit their usernames to the athletic department, while other departments prevent players from posting foul or offensive language. A policy for the men’s basketball team at the University of Georgia even requires players to get permission from their coach to have a Twitter account.
Howard M. Wasserman, a law professor at Florida International University, said the general idea behind the different policies is the same: because student athletes receive significant benefits and participate on the team, schools believe they can restrict their speech in ways that could never lawfully be applied to the larger student body.
“If I’m on an academic scholarship, I’m not told I can’t go out and speak on matters of public concern,” he said.
A spokesperson from the National Collegiate Athletic Association did not return the Student Press Law Center’s request for comment.
Kendall Spencer, chair of the NCAA Division I Student Athlete Advisory Committee, said speech regulations are a compromise most student-athletes accept.
“There is an understanding that it’s sort of a double-edged sword,” said Spencer, a track and field star at the University of New Mexico who oversees a board of student-athlete representatives from various athletic conferences. While student- athletes do have free speech rights, he said, most players accept that there is a “brand” automatically associated with wearing a school’s jersey.
“With all these social media outlets, one wrong thing gets said and it goes viral,” Spencer said, mentioning that a number of athletic departments do provide student-athletes with resources to teach them how to communicate effectively. He said the NCAA wants student-athletes to speak their minds but also wants them to see themselves as representing their institutions.
The consequences for a poorly phrased or ill-thought-out social media post can be massive. In 2010, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill football player, Marvin Austin, sent a tweet that seemed to refer to potential illegal benefits for student- athletes from agents — “I live in club LIV so I get the tenant rate . . . bottles comin like its a giveaway.” After an investigation revealed inappropriate agent contact, further probing by NCAA investigators and local media uncovered a much larger academic- athletic scandal at UNC, with student-athletes receiving high grades for no-work classes.
Austin, whose now-infamous post is referred to as the “tweet heard ‘round the world,” was permanently suspended from the UNC football team after it was revealed he had indeed received improper benefits.
Wasserman said it’s unclear how a legal challenge to a speech restriction would play out in the courts. He said administrators would argue that student-athletes represent the university and its image, so the school should have some control over what they say. A court might also be swayed by the argument that restricting student-athlete speech is beneficial to team uniformity, he said.
But on the other hand, Wasserman said student-athletes still have First Amendment rights. And since they are not classified as employees or paid, student-athletes do not give up their free speech rights when they accept a scholarship, he said.
Still, Wasserman said the debate over student-athlete speech policies is more likely to play out in the press rather than in the courts. He said athletic departments do not often heavily enforce the policies and he has not heard of a student-athlete challenging a speech code in court.
By restricting student-athlete speech, he said athletic departments try to protect and control the university’s image and message. And if a student-athlete does challenge a speech policy, Wasserman said they risk alienating their coach or teammates, which could result in reduced playing time or the loss of other benefits.
“Those are all very powerful forces,” he said.
Like any person with celebrity status, prominent student-athletes can draw attention to any topic when they speak out — particularly football and men’s basketball players.
As he prepared to play in the 2014 NCAA championship game, University of Connecticut basketball star Shabazz Napier made headlines when he commented that he does not always have enough money for food and sometimes goes to bed hungry.
“We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food in,” Napier said.
“Sometimes, like I said, there’s hungry nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still got to play up to my capabilities.”
Within weeks of Napier’s comments, the NCAA announced student-athletes could receive “unlimited” meals and snacks as an “effort to meet the nutritional needs of all student-athletes.”
Before the rule, student-athletes relied on a food stipend or three meals a day. Spencer said the NCAA was considering changing its policy well before Napier’s comments.
“This has really opened up the door for athletes to stand up for themselves, to have their own voice.”
Jeremy Cash, a Duke University football player on the power of the Missouri football boycott
Illustrating the power of whistleblowing on social media, a former University of Illinois football player’s string of Twitter posts led directly to the removal of the Illini’s head football coach.
Former offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic drew national attention for a string of tweets claiming “abuse and misuse of power” by coach Tim Beckman, including pushing athletes to play while hurt, worsening their injuries. The tweets provoked an investigation that led Illinois to fire Beckman just before the start of the 2015-16 season. Cvijanovic had completed his eligibility and was beyond the disciplinary reach of the athletic program.
In September 2013, football players from Georgia Tech University, University of Georgia and Northwestern University protested the NCAA when they took the field with the letters “APU” written on their gear. The letters stood for “All Players United,” an effort organized by the National College Players Association to bring awareness to how the NCAA handles concussions and compensation.
That same season, football players at Grambling State University in Louisiana staged a protest and refused to travel to a game, criticizing the poor facilities, the firing of their head coach and travel policies, which forced the team to take long bus trips to games.
In response, school administrators fired George Ragsdale as interim head coach. Even so, Grambling was forced to cancel the game against Jackson State University when players refused to travel to the game.
Spencer, who serves as the first student-athlete on the NCAA Division I Board of Directors, said the 2015 Missouri boycott showed that student-athletes can address issues that go beyond their team or university. The public is starting to see the role college athletics can play in addressing larger societal issues, he said.
“I think that’s fantastic,” Spencer said, adding that he loves seeing student-athletes assume an added level of responsibility and speak out in a positive way. “I think that’s one of the best gifts of being a college athlete.”
Brice Johnson, a senior on the UNC basketball team, told local media after the boycott that it was powerful to see the Missouri football team play a role in Wolfe’s resignation.
“If a team here did that, say the Carolina basketball team did something like that, that guy would probably be out like two minutes after,” Johnson said, according to The (Raleigh) News & Observer. “The Carolina basketball program is very powerful.”
Jeremy Cash, a Duke University football player, was also quoted as saying that the Missouri incident served as a “catalyst” for additional boycotts and protests by student-athletes.
“This has really opened up the door for athletes to stand up for themselves, to have their own voice,” he said.
Still, the boycott was criticized by some, including Republican Missouri Rep. Rick Brattin, who pre-filed a bill in December that would revoke a student-athlete’s scholarship if they call, incite, support or participate in a strike by refusing to play.
In response, former Missouri football player Ian Simon spoke out against the bill.
“They want to call us student-athletes, but they keep us out of the student part of it,” Simon said in an interview with the Missourian. “I’m more than just a football player. . . . As soon as we’re done playing at the University of Missouri, the University of Missouri does not care about us anymore. We are not their responsibility. . . . Our sport is just a small part of who we are.”
The bill was withdrawn shortly after it was introduced. Brattin did not return the SPLC’s request for an interview.
Wasserman said the mentality around student-athlete speech has changed in favor of tighter restrictions.
When NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played at the University of California-Los Angeles under legendary coach John Wooden, Abdul-Jabbar took part in black student protests with the approval of Wooden — the only stipulation was that he not embarrass the program, Wasserman said.
But now, Wasserman said many coaches would see any sort of off-the-field speech about political controversy as embarrassing and potentially hurtful to the program.
In today’s athletic departments, the media access afforded to reporters more than 30 years ago has largely disappeared.
In September 2015, Mark Selig, a then-graduate student at the University of Missouri, published a blog post on a poll he conducted with a dozen football beat reporters who cover teams in the Southeast Conference.
“Player access has steadily worsened,” James Crepea, who covers the Auburn University football team for the Alabama Media Group, said in the survey. “We haven’t been formally asked by [a sports information director] who we would like to talk to, other than after a game, in over two years, though I submit requests which almost always go unfulfilled.”
Aaron Suttles, who covers the University of Alabama football program for The Tuscaloosa News, said in the survey that assistant coaches are off-limits for interviews and all player interviews are in group settings, with no opportunity for one- on-one time.
The sportswriters also reported restrictions on access to team practices and head coaches. While access varies between programs, Selig, who now is at The Baltimore Sun as a sports content editor, said many reporters are nostalgic for older days.
Selig spoke with Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Bob Holt, who began covering the University of Arkansas program in 1981 when the team locker room was open after games and reporters could “just grabbed whoever we wanted to talk to that day” after practice.
“Believe it or not, in the 1980s, they used to put players’ home numbers in the media guide bios,” Holt told Selig.
Back then, Selig said college athletic departments needed newspaper reporters for press and media attention. Now, he said athletic departments have more money and can produce their own media content and promote it on their team’s website, which is often slicker than professional media outlets.
“I don’t see it getting much better any time soon,” Selig said.
Ryan Cooper, sports editor at The Lantern, the student-run newspaper at The Ohio State University, said access to student- athletes often depends on the team. For high-profile programs
like the OSU football team, which won its eighth national championship last year, access to student-athletes and the coaching staff is controlled and operates on a strict schedule, he said.
“I think they have everything down to a science at this point,” he said.
As The Lantern comes out only three times a week, Cooper said they can produce enough content with the limited access they receive to the football team.
Cooper said access is better with sports that receive less media attraction, such as wrestling, women’s volleyball and men’s and women’s soccer. Student journalists, he said, are often the only people who cover those teams, besides representatives from the athletic department. Regardless of the sport, he said the best stories come when a reporter is able to get personal with a player and talk one-on-one.
Even the cleanest college programs have an underbelly, Selig said, and it’s a journalist’s job to tell those stories as well.
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