College coaches have reacted in various ways to the challenges of social media and young athletes, where any missteps could lead to bad publicity. At several institutions, that reaction includes banning athletes from participating in social media altogether.
Urban Meyer banned football players at Ohio State from Twitter back in 2012. The practice had already begun back in 2011. Clemson is among the recent ones to be reported as doing so, with Dabo Swinney banning players from engaging in social media during the season.
According to this piece in ESPN, that practice at public institutions may violate the athlete’s First Amendment rights, particularly when it is an overly broad and blanket ban (versus, say, giving rules on specific things that should not be discussed online related to the institution).
If colleges are ever forced to defend these policies in court — there have been no significant cases yet — they’ll probably argue that student-athletes are different from their peers. Players already submit to extra oversight, like curfews and practice schedules. But unlike social media bans, those rules don’t invalidate their constitutional rights. Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the nonprofit Student Press Law Center, says employers can sometimes defend limits on speech by arguing that their workers are representing the organization — but it’s unlikely that universities, so terrified of categorizing student-athletes as employees, would use that defense. “Colleges have made that bed, and now they’re going to have to lie in it,” he says.
Therein lies the rub with everything about the way that major sports programs control aspects of a player’s life (like an employee-employer relationship). They don’t want to be acknowledge that, and it puts them in a tough spot when factual circumstances that would be allowable in an employee relationship pop up. We saw it last week with the player fines at Virginia Tech and Cincinnati. Fining someone would be perfectly reasonable within an employee-employer relationship, but with colleges trying to avoid those labels, it makes such a move imprudent. Similarly, outright telling a group of students they cannot speak on any topic in a particular forum probably goes too far.