by Andrew Stern
One of the things that first alerted N-C-Double-A investigators that something was amiss at UNC was a 2010 tweet from football player Marvin Austin, who boasted about an extravagant night out in a Miami nightclub.
Now, UNC — like many schools — has a social media policy for student athletes. And some legal scholars say it could illegally infringe on their freedom of speech.
For most college students, the worst thing that can happen from a social media post gone wrong comes when your friends make fun of you after seeing it. But for UNC athletes, that’s not the case.
Unlike other students, they are subject to a social media policy, which some legal scholars say could illegally infringe on their freedom of speech.
Steve Kirschner, head sports information director, says the policy is designed to teach student athletes responsible social media practices while trying not to limit their expression too much:
“The university encourages our kids to participate in social media,” Kirschner said. “We do promote free speech. I think from a university standpoint, we want to promote the university. We want these kids to be able to promote themselves and the good things about college life, but we want them to do it in a responsible manner.”
In order to ensure that athletes are following the social media policy, the athletic department has at least one person per team who monitors every athlete’s social media accounts. The school also employs Varsity Monitor, a third party company to help.
Kirschner describes some of the things that the current policy prohibits:
“Offensive language, criticizing officials, criticizing the opponents or teammates. Just typical good standards.”
If a post violates these “good standards”, coaches can order athletes to remove it or face punishment as severe as losing their scholarships.
In some cases, “good standards” aren’t spelled out in writing, and many situations are open to the athletic department’s discretion.
“Sometimes, it’s just ‘you know it when you see it’ type of thing,” Kirschner said.
UNC media law professor Tori Ekstrand sees some potential legal issues for a policy that leaves so much up to interpretation:
“I think the thing that I look at and that my colleagues look at as being a little problematic are phrases like, ‘they’re not going to tolerate disrespectful comments’ and then there’s no definition of what that is,” Ekstrand said. “How can athletes reasonably control their social media presence without a definition of what the university thinks is disrespectful?”
Ekstrand says the policy leaves out some other considerations too.
“If the student didn’t agree with the coach’s decision or the monitoring of a social media comment, could the athlete reasonably appeal that decision?”
While First Amendment scholars might question the legality of UNC’s current policy, athletes like football player Tim Scott, says the policy is for his own good.
“I actually say they’re helping us because after all of this is over, you’re going to have to get a job and nowadays, jobs look at what you put on social medias so they’re actually helping us for the long run,” Scott said.
Track and field athlete Houston Summers, a representative on the student athlete advisory council, says the policy is for more than just protecting future job prospects:
“I think the university has some stock in understanding that they have a brand,” Summers said. “They have an image to uphold, and as part of that, they also hold the student athlete responsible for what they put out. So, they want to raise awareness that we need to be sensitive to the things that we put out there and the things that we post because not only do they represent ourselves and our family, they represent our university.”
Social media issues are nothing new at UNC — the entire athletic/academic scandal began with a football player’s tweet. In the wake of that, the NCAA reprimanded UNC for not being vigilant enough in monitoring its athletes’ social media accounts.
Now, for most athletes, social media censorship is simply a reality if they want to compete for UNC.