College basketball social media policy: Just one girlfriend, "not two or three"

In his profile, University of Georgia sophomore forward Cameron Forte offers an explanation for his Twitter silence.
University of Georgia freshman forward Kenny Gaines loves Twitter. He tweets about breakfast; he tweets about music. He tweets about girls and parties and his faith. But tweets about wins and loses? You won't find any of those on his page.

The same goes for sophomore forward Cameron Forte: he appears to love Twitter. Or so called retweets: he hasn't actually crafted an original tweet since July 19, 2013.

Forte and Gaines, along with their eight fellow tweeting Bulldogs, strictly adhere to the team's social media policy. As Forte explains in his Twitter profile, they're not allowed to tweet during the season. That's why you won't see any original tweets from Gaines prior to the team's season-ending loss in the SEC tournament. (He tweeted during the NIT tournament, but who really counts that?) The players have to get the coach to sign off just to create an account.

Even after they get the green light, they're expected to stick to the certain guidelines that go well beyond what they post and tweet.

"Treat women with respect," and stay "out of gray areas, Orgies and gang bangs are inappropriate," the team's social media policy states. "Birth control is your responsibility too; Hicky's [sic] / passion marks should not ever be noticed by coaches." And, as true gentlemen, they should only have "One. Not two or three girlfriends."

While they might have the most far-reaching restrictions, the Georgia Bulldogs men's basketball team is hardly the only one with a social media policy, according to a new study. Conducted by a group of students at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, it questions the legality of these policies.

The students partnered with the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) to conduct a public records audit of 83 NCAA Division 1 athletic departments, specifically requesting 11 documents from each school. The documents included the agreements that student athletes sign, codes of conduct and scholarship agreements.

Of the schools surveyed, 59 had clear social media policies. Few were quite as detailed as the University of Georgia's men's basketball policy, but most restricted what student-athletes can say online. Many of the schools even work with outside companies to monitor student-athlete social media accounts.

"Do not have a false sense of security about your rights to freedom of speech," say the University of Akron, Florida State University and Oklahoma State University social media policies. "Understand that freedom of speech is not unlimited."

Looking at documents from other schools, it is hard to tell if policies pertain directly to social media or speech in general, according to a SPLC release. Some of the schools simply explain best practices. Others require athletes to take down any social media posts that the schools deem to be "questionable."

"I think it had a lot to do with this ever-changing world of social media and Twitter," senior broadcast major Scott Zlotnick said in the release. "In the last year or two, you see a lot of athletes getting in trouble on Twitter."

One of the most notorious cases is that of Kent State wrestler Sam Wheeler, who tweeted anti-gay remarks in response to the coming-out of University of Missouri football player Michael Sam. Media outlets across the country picked up the tweets, and Wheeler was soon "indefinitely suspended" from the team.

He was suspended because the tweets were in direct violation of Kent State's social media policy, which states that the school can impose various sanctions, including the reduction or non-renewal of an athletic scholarships, if a student violates it.

At Missouri State, foul language is off limits, as is saying anything that could embarrass "yourself, your family, your team, the athletic department or Missouri State University." Even if someone else posts offensive content to an athlete's Facebook wall, the athlete is still held accountable.

Beyond content, the schools also monitor what time of day that athletes use social media. At Western Kentucky University, the women's soccer team isn't allowed to use social networks between midnight and 5 a.m.

"My mom said nothing good ever happens between 12 and 5," explained coach Jason Neidell. "The problems that we've had with social media usually happen between 12 and 5 because the kids are out, they're drinking or doing stuff they're not supposed to be doing. If it's good-enough material, they can wait and post it at 5:30."

At many of these public universities, the policies could be infringing on students' First Amendment rights. Private universities are not bound by the First Amendment protections, but public universities are not legally able to restrict speech, online or otherwise, according to SPLC.

An associate athletic director for academic services at Texas Tech told SPLC that she doesn't think these social media policies infringe on free speech.

"We totally respect students' personal media presence. We respect that. We don't say: 'Don't have Twitter. Don't have Facebook. Don't do Instagram,'" said Felicia Martin. "What we say is: 'Be responsible.'"

A law professor at Florida International University begs to differ. In an interview with SPLC, Howard Wasserman said at least of few of the various schools' and teams' policies, like the University of Georgia's policy allowing men's basketball coaches to search players' dorm rooms without advance notice, are in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment. But at the end of the day, whether they are raiding dorm rooms or making players take down questionable tweets, he said, "They can get away with it because the athletes are going to let them get away with it."
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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.