Jock Police

Should colleges censor the posts and tweets of their athletes?

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A tweet can cost a college football team far more than a missed tackle or a dropped catch can. Back in 2010, University of North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin posted about partying in a Miami Beach nightclub: "I live in club LIV so I get the tenant rate ... bottles comin like its a giveaway." (He was quoting rapper Rick Ross.) The post piqued the interest of the National Collegiate Athletic Association; an investigation found that agents showered Austin with cash and boondoggle trips to Miami. Other Tar Heels, it turns out, also broke NCAA rules. In response, the NCAA banned UNC's football team from this year's postseason and cut its allotment of football scholarships for the next three years.

Colleges invest millions in their athletic programs and aren't about to let social-media slipups bring them down. Prompted by cases like North Carolina's, schools are keeping a closer eye on the Facebook and Twitter feeds of their athletes. Some are monitoring their every digital move, and certain observers--including state governments--are wondering if the oversight goes too far. Universities have long wrestled with legal issues concerning how much control they should exert over their students. The rise of social media in the past decade has made keeping a leash on college jocks all the more contentious. The essential question is, What rights to privacy and free expression should student athletes expect?

The answer for now: not many. Some college teams ban athletes from sites like Twitter altogether. Others take a more nuanced approach, requesting an open door into students' digital rooms. Utah State University, for example, asks athletes to sign the school's social-networking policy, which states that the university "supports and encourages the individual's right of free speech" but prohibits "images that are revealing," any "display of alcohol or firearms" and "offensive or foul language." Athletes must "grant full permission for the university and other third-party monitors to gain access to the 'friends only,' 'private,' and similarly designated areas" of their social-networking pages.

The policy includes the following waiver: "To the extent that any federal, state, or local law prohibits the Athletic Department from accessing my social networking accounts, I hereby waive any and all such rights and protections." So as a de facto condition for playing sports at Utah State--a public institution of higher learning--you must grant the school license to ignore the law.

"There are all kinds of unconstitutional statutes and governmental actions going on here," says Phillip Closius, a constitutional-law expert at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "It's clearly suspect."

And it's sparking a demi-industry. A few companies snoop for hire: last year, UNC engaged Varsity Monitor to help thwart social-media misuse and now pays $8,640 for software that flags suspicious activity. "We want to make sure athletes represent the institution in a positive manner," says Amy Herman, an associate athletic director for compliance at UNC. Varsity Monitor's client list includes the University of Texas football team and Villanova; it recently acquired a competitor, Centrix Social, which counted the University of South Carolina and Auburn among its users.

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