Racheal Foxley from Bolton, England, was 18 years old when she became an official Murray State University Racer in 2012. As a player on the Murray State University Women’s Soccer team, Foxley was introduced to compliance meetings the first week of preseason.

Student-athletes are required to sign contracts in exchange for eligibility, however, one rule that many athletes, including Foxley, are almost unwilling to sign is the university’s social networking policy:

  • “The Department of Athletics reserves the right to take action against any currently enrolled student-athlete, or any person receiving athletically related aid, engaged in behavior that is deemed unacceptable or inappropriate or violates University, Department, or team rules, including such behavior that occurs in postings on the internet.”

“I knew America was going to be strict, but not on the social media side,” Foxley said.

The Murray State University Women’s Soccer Team was required to erase all content on their social media accounts that went against the social networking policy.

“I was kind of annoyed that I had to delete all my pictures because I felt like I was deleting memories,” Foxley said. “Coming from a culture where the drinking age is 18, I’m legally allowed to go out and have a drink with my friends. Nobody had ever told me before to be cautious of what I posted, not even my parents or coaches. I was in shock when I had to do it here.”

First Amendment Rights

What many student-athletes, including Foxley, are unaware of is the general rule under the First Amendment.

  • “A college or university is prohibited from regulating speech based on the content or viewpoint of the message or expressive activity.”

However, university athletic departments across the nation continue to infringe upon the First Amendment when adopting social media policies.

University vs. Athletic Departments

Although the hyphen in the term “student-athlete” symbolizes the tie between education and sport for a collegiate athlete at a university, it is becoming more apparent how separate the education and athletic departments really are once policies become established.

Wes Gay, publisher of “Hands off Twitter: Are NCAA Student-Athlete Social Media Bans Unconstitutional?”, explains how unwilling school administrators are to contest the athletic department’s choice to restrict a student-athletes’ freedom of speech.

Universities class winning as a priority because it draws “more notoriety, more ticket sales, more alumni donations, and more revenue,” Gay said.

A theory is presented: if a successful coach requires a policy that will generate revenue for the university, the university heads will support the decision of restricting free speech.

Social Media Policies

In 2014, journalism students at the University of Maryland, conducted a study to determine the number of universities that monitor student-athlete social media accounts. Results in the study showed that of 83 universities investigated, more than 59 universities have restrictions on student-athletes’ social media usage.

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Source: https://infogr.am/app/#/home

Social media policies are enforced only by universities rather than conferences and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Collegiate athletic conferences do not enforce social media policies according to Kyle Schwartz, assistant commissioner for media relations in the Ohio Valley Conference.

“Right now as a conference office we don’t have a blanket social media policy that all of our schools must abide by,” Schwartz said. “Since we do not put a directive down for specifics, each school formulates its own policy.”

However, after the infamous Tweet by football player Marvin Austin and the investigation of the University of North Carolina Football Team in 2011, the NCAA began to take social media rules more seriously.

  • “While we do not impose an absolute duty upon member institutions to regularly monitor such sites, the duty to do so may arise as part of an institution’s heightened awareness when it has or should have a reasonable suspicion of rules violations.

Dave Clarke, head coach of the Quinnipiac College Women’s Soccer Team, identified the benefits of social media as a tool for coaches to recruit prospects. Clarke views his athletes’ social media usage as a positive when used correctly.

“I am not against my players using social media,” Clarke said. “Players just need to post in a responsible manner – think before posting, cool off, or edit (the post).”

But doesn’t a human being have the right to express themselves under the First Amendment regardless of the content?

Legal Issues

Dr. Kevin Qualls, a former trial attorney and current media law professor at Murray State University, compares the social networking policies at universities to the military’s policy on free speech.

“Just because you have the right to speak,” Qualls said. “You can always forfeit that right via contract.”

The University of North Carolina, with the already tainted reputation for their athletes’ use of social media, states on their social media policy that “each student-athlete must remember that playing and competing for The University of North Carolina is a privilege, not a right”.

“A privilege is something you can lose,” Qualls said. “A right to something, you cannot lose.”

In return for an athlete to enjoy the status of being a member of the varsity team at a university, they must give up their rights to whatever conditions come under that contract.

Divisions alike

Rebecca Dowling, an Irish senior playing for Division II’s University of Montevallo Women’s Soccer Team, does not agree with the idea of social media policies.

“I know that the athletic department tell us that they enforce policies to help us with employment in the future,” Dowling said. “But I still think people should have the right to express how they feel and post whatever pictures they want. It should be the student’s choice and they shouldn’t be punished for it.”

Regardless of division in the NCAA, social media policies are universal and are considered a priority for many universities. At the end of the day, athletes are the driving force for athletic departments and every action taken can bring either success or failure to the program.

Racheal Foxley has grown accustomed to the business of American collegiate sport, and although her rights were exchanged for playing time, her three years as a Racer has been one of a kind.

“I guess it’s just the perks of being a student-athlete,” Foxley said.

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