Thursday, March 8, 2012

Oh Tweet! What is Free Speech in a Social Media World?

Buried amidst the Peyton Manning soap opera, the glory of championship week, and NBA and NHL regular season madness was a short, couple graph story from the Associated Press about Twitter violations by NCAA athletes.

Yesterday, the University of Michigan football team received a verbal commitment from Ohio high school junior linebacker Mike McCray to play for the Wolverines starting in 2013. As a junior, McCray was only allowed to verbally commit to the Wolverines, not sign a National Letter of Intent, or a contract stating he will play for the school. A verbal commitment is non-binding and allows the recruit to continue the recruiting process if he so chooses.

Shortly after McCray committed, two current Michigan football players tweeted at him to congratulate him on being a Wolverine. One, redshirt senior wide receiver Roy Roundtree, attended the same high school as McCray. Redshirt senior linebacker Kenny Demens, the other tweeter, did not. Michigan was then informed that they may have broken a secondary NCAA violation which prohibits someone affiliated with a school from sending messages to recruits via social media.

The issue, or non-issue as many would argue, brings up a couple of questions: does the NCAA, or an individual institution, have the right to monitor what its members say online? Is there a difference between interaction via social media and interactions in person? Does one’s speech being public, and in many ways permanent, change the definition of it being free?

Social media is, by definition, social. It allows us to communicate with people in quick, short bursts no matter location or time of day. But social media is also a powerful news and marketing tool. There’s a difference between talking to a friend in a restaurant and communicating with someone for the whole world to see. College athletic departments are brands, as is the NCAA, and they want to protect that image. Neither tweet was incriminating, nor did they offer the promise of lavish gifts, or anything at all.  But Roundtree and Demen did break a (silly) rule and it briefly hurt the athletic department’s image and credibility.

In all likelihood the NCAA MAY slap the Wolverines on the wrist. On an ever increasing list of possible violations being committed around the country, a congratulatory tweet from a couple players is miniscule at best. However, schools are wising up to the importance of maintaining an image on social media. The University of North Carolina has stringent social media rules for theirstudent-athletes, and many others may follow suit. The College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) put out their own list of Twitter tips forstudent-athletes. It focuses a lot on not only maintaining the college’s brand, but the student-athletes’ personal brand as well. And if you think professional athletes aren’t immune from Tweet-lash, outside the confines of the NCAA, think of Pittsburgh Steeler running back Rashard Mendenhall.

Free speech on social media is one of many issues facing collegiate athletics, yet it applies to students, companies, pretty much everyone. For individuals and companies out there on social media just remember: you are what you tweet!

Jen Schiller is an Associate Account Executive at Maroon PR.  Contact her at

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