Social Media Changing College Sports

Last month thousands of student-athletes headed back to school, back to practices and back to compliance. Their compliance with the NCAA, compliance with their school and compliance with their team’s social media policy. University athletics has caught up quickly since social media first took over the world two decades ago. That’s because the effects of social media on college athletics, good or bad, is instantaneous.

Most, if not all, athletic departments now have a social media policy for student-athletes to adhere to. These policies range widely among University Athletic Departments. Some athletic departments ban student-athletes from creating individual social-media accounts. Others have no restrictions on student-athlete use of social media but offer social media education.

No matter what side of the social media spectrum a University has placed itself, the path has not been a smooth one. Schools with outright bans on social media imposed on its student-athletes have run into issues with defenders of the First Amendment. Northwestern University was forced to change their student-athlete social media policy after the Illinois Governor signed legislation making it unlawful for higher education institutions to require a student’s social media login information.

However, one can see how administrators would want to impose an outright ban on all social media accounts for student-athletes. It seems every season a prominent athlete is in the news because of violations or embarrassments caused by a social media post. In 2013, Johnny Manziel created headlines after tweeting photos of himself at nightclubs and casinos. In 2014, Indiana men’s basketball players Yogi Ferrell and Stanford Robinson were trying to enter a nightclub underage when strangers took a photo of the pair and shared it online.

Punishments when policies are not adhered to also vary widely. A written reprimand, a suspension, or even a dismissal from the team and university are some of the many negative effects of social media misuse by college athletes.

Recruits have been on the wrong side of the social media issue as well. You can ask almost any college coach and they will tell you they not only monitor athletic recruits social media use, they have pulled scholarship offers because of posts on a recruit’s social media platform.

It’s not all bad news for student-athletes using social media though. Even before an athlete steps on campus, social media allows them to become part of the team and start friendships. And for the best of the best, just as professional athletes utilize social media to interact fans and promote their brand, top college athletes are already harnessing that same power. Bringing with them thousands of followers and loyal fans when they complete their NCAA eligibility and move into the pro ranks.

Athletics departments have been capitalizing on fans love of their social media platforms too. You would be hard pressed not to find a social media marketing expert on an athletic department’s staff. Studies have shown that fans are more likely to purchase their team’s merchandise when an athlete has shared it on social media.

And whether they like it or not, coaches using social media generates a big following for their teams. Some coaches handle their social media accounts themselves while others hand off the task to staff to post and tweet online.

But, just this summer coaches’ use of social media became a whole lot more important. That’s because the NCAA has instituted a new rule allowing coaches to re-tweet and like social media posts of recruited athletes. It will be interesting to see how this will play out this year. Recruits may equate social media likes with how much a team is interested in them. But if coaches and teams are clicking like on a number of different recruits’ posts, the top recruit may feel that the team isn’t all that interested in him or her after all. A great college coach can’t just be an expert in their sport anymore. The intricate strategies of recruiting a new generation of social media hungry teens can now make or break a team’s future success.

On the other side of the social media coin are the fans. Alumni and fans have jumped on their team’s social media bandwagon from the very beginning. The majority of fans use the platform to follow their team’s performance and express support for their alma mater or local heroes.

However, negativity online is becoming an increasing problem in particular when it is aimed directly at the young student-athletes themselves. Last year, a funny video was shared online depicting a fake public service announcement for grown men and women yelling and cursing at “kids” playing in the NCAA basketball tournament. Although the video was a parody, we’ve all seen or been that guy yelling at the TV set. But, now there is no TV set or big arena barrier between fans and players. Negativity can access student-athletes directly 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Last year, University of New Mexico basketball star Cullen Neal shut down his social media accounts and changed his phone number after his father and UNM head coach, Craig Neal, said Cullen had received death threats after a perceived lackluster season. Cullen was the Lobos leading scorer as a freshmen. He eventually made the decision to transfer to Ole Miss.

Unfortunately, Cullen’s story is not unique. Other reports of student-athletes having to shut down social media accounts because of extreme negativity have been coming out. Researchers have even begun to study the coping mechanisms that student-athletes use to deal with negativity directed at them online. But despite all the reports and evident negativity plaguing student-athletes online, institutions have been slow to react and protect athlete privacy and peace of mind. In fact, the NCAA has no policy or rule restricting social media use by student-athletes, athletic departments or staff. It has also been silent on the issue of fan use of social media to abuse its student-athletes. Just like many other institutions, the NCAA sees a substantial monetary benefit of colleges and student-athletes using social media platforms. However, there is a clear conflict of interest when that institution was founded to keep college athletes safe.