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November 7, 2017 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

Creating a social media policy for athletes

When I began my career as an athletic administrator almost 25 years ago, armed with my IBM Selectric II typewriter and a telephone in my office, the only reference to social media might have involved articles in the hometown newspaper or coverage by the local radio or TV station.

Today, advancements in technology have brought about a whole new world of possibilities. Never before has news and information been so available, and never have we been so socially connected. Our society has enjoyed tremendous benefits from the technological development of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogging and other types of electronic communication. However, as with so many great inventions, problems have developed. Many of these issues have raised concerns at our schools.

The Virginia Pilot reported in 2012 that Old Dominion University (Virginia) football coach Bobby Wilder had implemented one of the nation’s most restrictive social media policies. ODU players were banned from Twitter year-round for as long as they were members of the team.

“Twitter is a ‘me’ thing, it’s all about ‘me,’” Wilder said. “When you’re a part of this team, it’s not about ‘me.’ It’s about everyone collectively.”

Lee E. Green, J.D., professor at Baker University (Kansas) and co-creator of three NIAAA Leadership Training Institute legal classes, spoke about legal issues in athletic programs at the 2012 Virginia Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association conference. He referenced various court decisions that have impacted efforts to control social media abuses.

The 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision Tinker vs. Des Moines School District (Iowa) served as a landmark case. It ruled that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates. Schools may limit student speech only where it would materially and substantially interfere with the work and discipline of the school. Inappropriate postings on social networks can result in a clash between school authorities and free speech rights.

In 2012, a 17-year-old at Garrett High School (Indiana) was expelled after he used either his school-issued computer or the school network to log onto Twitter, where he casually used multiple expletives. Without proof of a substantial disruption, as noted in the Tinker case, administrators may be limited in their ability to address the situation.

Green recommends that school systems include a social media policy in their student-athlete code of conduct. The policy should include precise language defining specifically prohibited behaviors. The policy should explain the disruptive impact of inappropriate social media postings on the morale and success of the team. It also should be specific and avoid any language that generalizes moral misbehavior.

In August 2012, the Beach District Principals’ Association in Virginia adopted a social media statement for use with its student-athletes. Specific prohibited behaviors are listed and the Virginia Legal Codes are incorporated into the document to reinforce the gravity of the issue.

The guidelines for student-athletes included in this article were taken from the St. Thomas Aquinas High School (New Hampshire) website. These guidelines serve two useful purposes in that they reinforce the concepts underlying the prohibited behaviors, and they help educate young people who often don’t fully appreciate the nature of online postings. The guidelines help student-athletes understand and appreciate the risks when they send information and pictures into cyberspace.

Guidelines for athletes

Here are five guidelines you should share with your student-athletes regarding appropriate use of social networks.

1. Avoid sharing private information. Be careful of how much and what kind of identifying information you post on social networks. It’s unwise to make available information such as date of birth, social security number, address, phone numbers, class schedules, bank account information or details about your daily routine. All of these can facilitate identity theft or stalking. Remember that once posted, the information becomes the property of the website.

2. Consider your career. Be aware that potential current and future employers and college admissions offices can access information you post on social networking sites. Realize that any information you post provides an image of you to prospective employers or schools. The posting is considered public information. Protect yourself by maintaining a self-image you can be proud of years from now.

3. Watch out for ‘phishing.’ Be careful in responding to unsolicited emails asking for passwords or PIN numbers, also known as “phishing.” Reputable businesses do not ask for this information online.

4. Understand your rights. Do not have a false sense of security about your rights to freedom of speech. Understand that freedom of speech is not unlimited and not without consequence. Social networking sites are not a place where you can say and do whatever you want without repercussions.

5. Protect your photos. Remember that photos put on social networks become the property of the site. You may delete the photo from your profile, but it still stays on their server. Internet search engines like Google or Yahoo may still find that image long after you have deleted it from your profile. Think long and hard about what type of photo you want to represent you.

One of the biggest lessons athletes should learn is that anything you post online enters the public record. High school students should carefully consider their profiles and ask themselves how they would look to a future college admissions officer or potential employer.

Creating your position statement

The following is the position adopted by the Beach District Principals’ Association (Va.). It is only a position statement, as the school board is responsible for adopting a policy.

Social media has become engrained in today’s society. The wide variety of social networking tools presently available provides students easy access to share important news and events with each other. Social media technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, Internet forums, weblogs, social blogs, micro blogging, Wikis, podcasts, photographs, video rating, social bookmarking and others have many benefits in our world; however, they can also be disruptive when inappropriate social media postings occur. Using these communication tools in an inappropriate manner can have negative consequences, especially if unkind words or threats are used with intent to hurt others.

The Beach District Principals’ Association recognizes and supports its student-athletes’ and coaches’ rights to freedom of speech, expression and association, including the use of social networks. In this context, each student-athlete and coach must remember that participating and competing for the Beach District is a privilege, not a right. The student-athlete and coach represent his or her high school and the Beach District, and therefore, they are expected to portray themselves, their teams, and their high school in a positive manner at all times. Any online postings must be consistent with federal and state laws, as well as team, school, school division and Beach District rules and regulations (including those listed below).

Specifically prohibited behaviors include but are not limited to:

  • Sexually explicit, profane, lewd, indecent, illegal, or defamatory language/actions.
  • Derogatory language regarding school personnel or other students.
  • Comments designed to harass or bully students or school personnel.
  • Nude, sexually-oriented, or indecent photos, images or altered pictures.

Also prohibited are all on-campus connections to off-campus violations of the policy, including:

  • Use of school computers to view off-campus postings.
  • Students accessing posts at school on their own devices.
  • Distribution of hard copies of posts on school property.
  • Re-communication on campus of the content of the posts.

Any authorized or unauthorized use in school or out of school of computer software, computer networks, telecommunications devices, information technology and related technologies, which disrupts or interferes with the educational process in any manner, is prohibited and may result in removal from the team or activity and a recommendation for expulsion.

Free speech and the law

Here are eight cases where a student’s free speech rights were tested — with varying results — in the courtroom.

• Tinker v. Des Moines School District — U.S. Supreme Court 1969

Determined that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates. Schools may limit student speech only where it would materially and substantially interfere with the work and discipline of the school.

• Fenton v. Stear — U.S. District Court, 1976

Upheld the in-school suspension, ban from a senior trip and ban from sports of a student who, at a shopping mall, greeted one of his teachers with a derogatory term. Fighting words are considered an exception to free speech.

• Bethel School District v. Frasier — U.S. Supreme Court 1986

Schools may prohibit on-campus student speech that is vulgar, lewd or indecent because such discourse is inconsistent with the fundamental values of public school education.

• Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier — U.S. Supreme Court 1988

Schools may regulate student speech in school-sponsored activities that are part of the curriculum (e.g. a school newspaper) so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.

• Morse v. Frederick — U.S. Supreme Court 2007

Schools may regulate student speech that takes place in school or at a school event that advocates the violation of an explicit school policy, such as that prohibiting the use of illegal drugs.

• Doninger v. Niehoff — U.S. Second Circuit, 2011

There was no free speech violation because the student’s conduct “posed a reasonably foreseeable risk that it would come to the attention of school authorities and materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”

• Layschock v. Hermitage School District — U.S. Third Circuit, 2011

A free speech violation occurred because there was no substantial disruption in the school. “We do not think that the First Amendment can tolerate the district stretching its authority into (the student’s) grandmother’s home and reaching him while he is sitting at her computer.”

• T.V. & M.K. v. Smith-Green County Schools — U.S. District Court, 2011

The school districted violated free speech because there was no substantial disruption in the school. The student-athlete code of conduct was too vague. Social media policies must be highly specific and narrowly tailored with regard to defining prohibited behaviors.


John Williams, CAA, is the student activities coordinator at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia.


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