Imagine a world in which every tweet is monitored, every Facebook post is examined and any content “deemed inappropriate” must be taken down.
For student-athletes at Oklahoma and dozens of other universities, it’s the world they’re living in. Whereas traditional students are free of social media restrictions, Sooner student-athletes sign a contract that outlines what they can and cannot post.
Among the things that are monitored according to the social networking policy obtained by The Daily: Pictures depicting the use of alcohol, hazing, illegal behavior and photographs that place the university “in a negative light.”
Jason Leonard, OU’s compliance executive director, acknowledged athletes are held to a higher standard because the institution is often viewed through the athletics program.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure student-athletes understand and follow those rules,” he said. “We do our best to educate our student-athletes about the dangers and pitfalls of social networking.”
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, has seen an uptick in social media monitoring for student-athletes in the last three to four years. He believes the trend began in 2010 when a University of North Carolina football player used social media to boast about getting gifts from an agent.
The NCAA subsequently launched an investigation and the school is still suffering from sanctions. In order to not let their athletes make a similar mistake, LoMonte estimates that it’s more common than not for student-athletes in revenue sports to have their social media accounts monitored.
“The athletic departments are starting to feel like it’s their job to save these athletes from themselves,” LoMonte said. “To keep them from damaging their own image in a way that might make them less marketable by blurting out some offensive thing on Twitter that they later regret.
At Oklahoma, student-athletes are educated at the beginning of every fall semester on dos and don’ts of social media. But despite the university’s desire to keep its athletes clean of questionable posts, the contract might overstep its boundaries.
“The contract seems to rely on legally unsound circular reasoning,” Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said. “That violating a ‘reasonable’ rule equates to a ‘material and substantial disruption of the educational process.’
“While there may be portions of this that are lawful, it certainly purports to reach speech that is protected by the First Amendment, and infringes on the rights of athletes,” he added.
Joey Senat, an Oklahoma State University professor in the School of Media and Strategic Communications, posed a question after looking through the document.
“So a student-athlete could be punished for criticizing the operation of the university, which is a government agency?” he asked.
The possible punishments are bolded in all capital letters in the social networking policy. Loss of playing eligibility, loss of potential employment opportunities and the possibility of jeopardizing personal safety are all included.
“If they’re actually threatening someone’s scholarship, housing or attendance in college then they’re triggering the first amendment,” LoMonte said. “They’re taking away intangible benefits for no other reason than the opinion the person expressed.”
But despite the restrictions, all athletes agree to sign the contract before they begin play. They’re aware of what they can and cannot do.
Lauren Chamberlain, a senior softball player, said that she knows the university views everything she posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Despite being careful, Chamberlain has been asked to take down posts a few times.
“One of them was from a couple years back when a curse word was used,” she said. “The other two happened when I was spreading the word about a fundraiser and it was portrayed as me advertising a company.”
Sooner sophomore cornerback Zack Sanchez took to Twitter to express his frustration over social media restrictions.
“Lol I guess freedom of speech or expression is for everybody else but athletes…” he tweeted Oct. 23.
Traditional students have sole authority of managing their social networking sites — student-athletes do not. It’s a different world, but some athletes like senior tennis player Abbi Melrose don’t seem to mind.
“I know members of compliance monitor our social media sites, but that is purely for the protection of the student-athletes and acts entirely in their best interests,” she said in an email.
LoMonte disagrees with the sentiment.
“The idea that you have to regulate and punish a person’s speech in order to save them from their own mistakes is a really weak constitutional justification,” he said. “The government doesn’t exist to save you from yourself.”
Because there are hundreds of student-athletes to monitor, the OU compliance office can’t do it all.
The university has a contract with Varsity Monitor — a company created to help schools manage their student-athletes’ social media activity, according to the company’s website.
The compliance office uses the company’s software to identify “key words” it’s looking for in a post, Leonard said. The company charges per student, and Leonard said the university pays for every football, baseball, men’s basketball and women’s basketball player to be monitored.
“They are more in the public eye than our other sports,” Leonard said. “We also monitor our other student-athletes, but not necessarily through Varsity Monitor because of costs.”
Despite the possible First Amendment infringements, different states have different laws, and Leonard said his office is aware of what they can do in Oklahoma.
Even with Varsity Monitor and a full-time staffer whose primary job is to sift through social media accounts, the compliance office realizes it can’t catch everything.
But in a time when nothing goes unnoticed, the office is confident that their student-athletes will make the right decisions based off the training they receive.
“Their Twitter is like a 140-character press conference,” Leonard said. “Everyone in the world is out there to see it.”
Each time a student-athlete takes the field sporting the school’s colors and slogan, they’re a visible representative of that university. Until the same student-athletes start pushing back against the binding social media policies, no change will be initiated, LoMonte said.
Restraining student-athletes’ freedom of speech is constitutionally questionable, but the topic hasn’t been legally answered because athletes haven’t taken the case through the court system.
No player is going to want to fight his or her coach or athletic director while still on the team.
“Some athlete is going to have to suffer the ultimate punishment and be kicked out of school,” LoMonte said. “Once he is kicked out of school, he’ll have nothing to lose anymore.”