By Joe Utter, Murrow News Service, and Adam Lewis
PULLMAN -- Cougars football players were banned from using Twitter by Washington State head coach Mike Leach Tuesday evening after a series of messages ascribed to players on the social media platform were brought to his attention earlier in the day.
“Twitter is now banned around here, so don’t expect anything on Twitter,” Leach said after practice. “Twitter’s banned and quite frankly, if after today you see anything on Twitter from our team -- and I don’t care if it says, ‘I love life’ -- I would like to see it because I will suspend them.”
During the past few months, several football players apparently posted public messages that included derogatory terms for women and African-Americans. None of the messages reviewed by Sportspress Northwest seemed to contain bullying or harassment. SPNW is not naming players because their identities have not been verified, but Leach felt compelled to act after a reporter questioned the university about its social media policy for athletes.
Twitter is an increasingly popular forum for fans and students to connect with athletes, but it's also created a headache for coaches and university officials.
In March, the NCAA hit the University of North Carolina football program with heavy sanctions, including a one-year postseason ban and loss of scholarships, for failing to monitor its student-athletes, including activity on social media that may have yielded evidence of impermissible benefits and relationships with professional sports agents.
More universities are now taking a proactive approach to monitoring social media, including bans on use by athletes, as well as relying on outside companies to monitor unwanted or questionable activity.
Steve Robertello, associate director of compliance at WSU, said the athletic department is against using monitoring services at this time. Costs for services range from $7,000 to $10,000 per year for a university, according to The New York Times.
“Last year, the NCAA told institutions they can be held accountable for what athletes put on social media,” Robertello said. “We did a couple trial runs with these companies to see what’s out there. Eventually we may have the ability to do it.”
WSU AD Bill Moos said Tuesday he supported Leach's decision to ban Twitter, according to Christian Caple at The Spokesman Review.
The NCAA recommends universities monitor social media similarly to monitoring other outside campus activity. That can be difficult and time-consuming in an age of instant communication.
Kevin Long, founder and CEO of UDiligence, said his company notifies an athletic department when the company identifies potentially offensive key words related to drugs, alcohol, sexual activity or obscenity, among others.
"When one of those keywords hits, email alerts are sent to the athlete and their coach/athletic department staff, allowing the athlete the chance to reconsider their post before it might become a negative news story and part of their digital legacy, impacting their search engine presence and online reputation," Long wrote in an email.Bradley Shear,a Maryland-based social media attorney, has been a harsh critic of companies like UDiligence and Varsity Monitor.
“Schools are in the education business and not the spying business, so these schools that properly educate their students on these issues are handling social media properly,” Shear said. He argues these monitoring programs impede on the student-athlete's right to privacy and may be unconstitutional.
“These schools that engage these services appear not to understand the legal liability issues inherent with social media,” Shear said. “With access comes responsibility.”
Shear said universities should treat online monitoring "in the same way they treat offline monitoring."
Robertello said last week the athletic department has taken the stance that its staff will take responsibility for monitoring activity. Robertello also said educating student-athletes on social media is key.
“Student-athletes are free to use it,” Robertello said, prior to Leach’s announcement. “We try to focus on education and how they should be appropriately using social media.”
Shear said WSU’s focus on educating student-athletes on social media is the right path and keep schools from possible legal issues.