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Social media bans in college sports offer lessons for enterprises

Lauren Brousell | Sept. 28, 2015
Recent policies that restrict social media use by collegiate athletes raise questions about students' right to freedom of speech and the authority of their teams and schools. What can companies learn from academia's hits and misses?

sports social media

NCAA sports programs bring a lot of publicity and money to colleges and universities. In many sports, particularly football and basketball, star players rise to celebrity-levels of popularity. These stars are not professionals, and universities do not pay them, but they are public figures and as such, they often draw significant media coverage. Several recent social media bans and usage limitations meant to restrict college athletes raise the questions of whether or not academic institutions violate players' rights, and if they should have to adhere to the same standards as corporations.

College sports' hard stance on social

Clemson University and Florida State University are two recent examples of universities that restricted athletes' use of social media. Both schools banned football players' use of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat during the season. The University of Connecticut women's basketball team and the University of Louisville's men's basketball team imposed similar rules.

Student athletes don't always make the best decisions when it comes to social media (think Ohio State QB Cardale Jones), but it's unclear whether or not coaches and teams overstep their boundaries when they impose formal social media bans or other restrictions. Such bans could also violate student athletes' First Amendment rights and the associated right to freedom of speech.

Dina Mastellone, partner and director of the HR practice group at law firm Genova Burns, says social media bans shouldn't violate the First Amendment if they are consistent with universities' codes of conduct, which govern student athletes. If a student athlete tweets something that could be considered a threat or harassment, for example, the action may violate a rule in the university's code of conduct, subjecting that student to discipline.

The freedom of speech issue may ultimately be up to the courts to decide, according to Carolynn Crabtree, founder of Cornerstone Reputation, a company that helps students and athletes improve their social media profiles for recruitment. Crabtree says teams and coaches are likely impose social restrictions for two reasons: to be preventative and to reduce distraction. However, full bans may intimidate players and make them scared to use social media, she says.

"Culturally it might be, 'adhere to our rules or you don't get game time,'" Crabtree says. "Coaches should flip that mentality and plant the seed early, and teach athletes to use social media responsibly and powerfully so they can have a genuinely positive impact and get positive attention."

Corporate social media restrictions and worker rights

In the corporate world, the social media rules aren't as fuzzy as in academia. Companies often create social media policies in official employee handbooks and require staff to sign off. Some draw up standalone policies. Such regulations frequently allow for social media use but restrict certain types of activity, such as harassing, intimidating or threating posts, according to Mastellone. Posts that reveal potentially sensitive business information are also often banned.


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