With social media—most notably Twitter and Facebook—only growing more pervasive with the under-25 crowd, many schools will likely be confronting a sticky situation regarding student-athlete social-media usage in the near future.
As The News & Observer reported last month, schools around North Carolina are grappling with that very question: Should schools restrict student-athletes' social-media access?
According to writer Tim Stevens, "Legal experts say school systems probably have the authority to discipline students for public posts, but there have been few rulings around the country that would set a clear precedent."
Most schools' student-athlete codes of conduct don't extend to cover online speech. For example: Despite the fact that the Wake County board of education banned vulgar and obscene language for student-athletes, the conduct policy for Wake schools doesn't specifically address social-media policies, according to Stevens.
The News & Observer article spoke directly of the difficulties that schools face when hoping to restrict student-athletes' access to social media:
The authority of school officials to discipline athletes—and other students—for things posted on social media sites pits the schools' ability to maintain discipline and regulate the people representing schools against students' freedom of expression.
"Because social media is so new, the law is scrambling to keep up. It is especially true in law dealing with social media and technology in general," said [Barbra] Osborne, a UNC-Chapel Hill associate professor who teaches a course on legal aspects of sports.
Courts have ruled that schools can restrict uncontrolled speech that could disrupt the school and its education mission.
Blocking student-athletes' social-media access wouldn't be unprecedented at this point, especially at the collegiate level. Villanova University reportedly banned its' male basketball players from Twitter this past season, as did the University of Miami with its football team. A January 2011 editorial in Georgetown University's student paper, The Hoya, also proposed implementing a Twitter ban on the men's basketball team, suggesting "it is in the best interest of the program and would help to keep players' minds on things that matter."
What's the solution? Whether schools decide to ban their student-athletes from posting on social-media sites, all schools have a responsibility to teach students about responsible social-media usage and digital citizenship. Having graduated from high school right when the Facebook craze was kicking off among college students (remember, it was only limited to college students in its early days), I can safely say I never received a single lesson about maintaining a respectable online persona.
And in a world that's only becoming more social media-inclined, that's a huge problem for schools. Over 7.5 million students participated in U.S. high school sports in 2009-10, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. With only roughly 400,000 of those high school student-athletes continuing their athletic careers at the collegiate level, those other 7 million high school student-athletes would be once again free to use social media as they please once they graduate. What happens to those student-athletes when they haven't learned and practiced responsible social media use, however?
Back in 2007, MSNBC.com covered the growing number of job applicants being rejected due to content on their Facebook pages (according to one survey from 2007, 35 percent looked up candidates on Google and 23 percent scoped out their social networking profiles). Now, according to a recent poll by career site ExecuNet, 77 percent of hiring managers now use social media to examine job applicants.
As Stevens touched upon in the News & Observer article, many social media posts from high school student-athletes "cannot be printed in a family newspaper." Schools may worry about what the student-athlete posts on his/her social media account during the season, but when those student-athletes eventually apply for jobs, a hiring manager won't disregard an explicit post on Twitter or Facebook because it occurred during a student-athlete's offseason. Hiring managers won't care when it was posted—they'll care that it was posted at all.
If schools don't teach student-athletes how to responsibly use the vast number of social -media tools at their fingertips, the schools could ultimately be doing them a huge disservice by banning them from Facebook and Twitter. Because once they're done with their season and/or graduate, those same student-athletes will flock back to social-media, whether or not they know how to maintain a positive digital persona.