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Social media for college athletes


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Social media can be both a blessing and a curse for college athletes and sports programs. This white paper from Elon University's graduate program in Interactive Media brings you best practices take from interviews with sport information directors around the country.

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Social media for college athletes

  1. 1. Re-Defining the Game A New Rulebook for Social Media Use by Collegiate Athletes & Universities Brooke Hundley & Russell Varner Elon University Interactive Media
  2. 2. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY The past decade has brought with it a wave of new outlets for online communication and networking. As social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Vine have become more popular, so too have their use among student-athletes. From recruitment to connecting with fans to showcasing their talents on and off the field, these sites offer student-athletes a way to craft public opinion and their personal brand like never before. However, with these emerging platforms come new and unforeseen challenges. Athletic departments at universities and colleges across the country are challenged with monitoring every student-athlete in every sport with limited personnel, resources and social media expertise. This allows for student-athletes to have free reign over what to present online, which can lead to a ravenous media pouncing on any misstep before the school even realizes what has happened. Legality only adds to the murkiness, with some schools choosing constant monitoring, others turning a blind eye until a problem arises, and still others feeling handcuffed due to state laws. The task of managing hundreds of student-athlete social media accounts falls most commonly to sports information directors (SIDs), often seen as the public communicators and mouthpieces of the collegiate sports department. Many SIDs already maintain a hectic office controlling the media outflow of communications through interviews, game recaps and press releases, and are now forced to regulate not only the media coverage, but also the word of mouth of their own players. Steve Shutt, sports information director at Wake Forest University, describes the rapidly changing social media landscape has having had a “drastic change in how we do our job.” Curtis Snyder, associate sports information director at the University of Colorado Boulder, described the situation as “a little overwhelming,” but stressed the importance of an overall social media strategy, stating that “all schools could and will have to put more emphasis on [social media] and understand that if you don’t get on it, you’re going to fall behind.” Simultaneously, student-athletes have presented their own concerns over what is and is not allowed on social media platforms by their schools. These students feel undertrained and unclear on what exactly constitutes improper use, often only made aware of a policy after a violation has been made and punishment applied.1 Despite these challenges, all schools can educate and cultivate their student-athletes into becoming social media savvy experts through positive reinforcement, proactive approaches and open communication. Throughout this paper, we will lay out guidelines for university officials on how to educate student-athletes on proper social media use, how to encourage student-athletes to translate their education offline into stand-out social media practices online, and how to engage with student- athletes on missteps and miscues in a way that is proactive rather than reactive. DEFINING SOCIAL MEDIA AND STUDENT-ATHLETES Recent trends in social media have seen blogs, picture messaging, chat functionality and networking sites rise to the forefront and alter the way people share information. With 86 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 in the United States using social media, it’s become part of the daily routine for many college students.2 According to Fieldhouse Media’s Kevin DeShazo, college student-athletes – defined as anyone participating in an NCAA sanctioned sport in Division I, II or III – are interacting mostly on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. WHITEPAPER/RE-DEFINING THE GAME 2 1.) Jimmy Sanderson & Blair Browning, (2014) “Training Versus Monitoring: A Qualitative Examination of Athletic Department Practices Regarding Student-Athletes and Twitter.” Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, DOI: 10.1080/17459435.2013.835348 2.) Jenise Uehara Henrikson, “The Growth of Social Media: An Infographic.” August 30, 2011. growth-of-social-media-an-infographic/32788/
  3. 3. WHITEPAPER/RE-DEFINING THE GAME 3 Each social media technology is being used by at least 78 percent of student-athletes, with Snapchat alone rising 32 percent over the past year. The number of individuals and sheer volume of content created on these sites makes for a daunting task for universities to oversee, not to mention the constant rise of new tools attracting users daily. Add in an undereducated user, with 40 percent of collegiate athletes lacking any social media training, and the work to maintain an effective reputation for both the athlete and the school they represent becomes a challenge for all.3 However, not all social media use warrants a ‘Big Brother’-type approach as some usage among collegiate athletes is simply for staying in touch with friends and family, networking with other professionals in a potential career field or staying up to date on the latest news. So what guidance do universities and colleges currently have with regards to regulating their student-athletes’ social media accounts? COLLEGIATE EDUCATION ON SOCIAL MEDIA Every major professional sport has a formal social media policy, from the National Football League to the National Basketball Association to the National Hockey League. Despite professional sports having laid the groundwork for developing policies from the top down, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has not followed suit in providing its schools with clear-cut rules on social media use among its student-athletes. Despite this fact, the NCAA has continued to punish teams for a lack of social media oversight, such as disciplining the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) in 2011 for violations pertaining to their football program, partially due to the fact that “the institution did not adequately and consistently monitor social networking activity that visually illustrated potential amateurism violations within the football program.”4 With strict punishments such as a fine, a bowl ban or the reduction of scholarships, one would expect to find strict guidelines on student-athlete social media use, but the NCAA has remained largely vague on the subject. The NCAA claims that it does not force schools to monitor their student-athletes, yet states that “the duty to do so may arise” and furthermore, that “such sites should be part of the monitoring effort if the institution becomes aware of an issue that might be resolved in some part by reviewing information on a site.”5 In response to the punishments handed down by the NCAA, universities are caught in the crosshairs between charging ahead with practices that may violate their students’ civil rights, or leaving 3.) Kevin DeShazo, “2014 Social Media Use of Student Athletes [INFOGRAPHIC],” February 13, 2014. blog/2014-social-media-use-of-student-athletes-infographic 4.) Jamie P. Hopkins, Katie Hopkins & Bijan Whelton, (2013) “Being Social: Why the NCAA Has Forced Universities to Monitor Student-Ath- letes’ Social Media.” Journal of Technology Law & Policy, DOI: 10.5195 5.) Hopkins, Hopkins & Whelton, (2013) “Being Social.” Fieldhouse Media 2014 collegiate athlete social media survey results (
  4. 4. WHITEPAPER/RE-DEFINING THE GAME 4 themselves vulnerable to NCAA penalties if a student or administrator makes an error in judgment. Mike Flynn, assistant athletics director at Appalachian State University, commented on the murky middle ground, stating that “as a public institution, our lawyers here have advised us that it would be a violation of First Amendment rights of our student-athletes to monitor their pages.” Despite the legal ramifications, with increasing pressure from the governing organization, more and more schools are trending towards making rash and rushed overadjustments to their social media stance to protect their NCAA standing. UNC immediately updated its guidelines for athletes to assign a coach or academic administrator to monitor sites constantly and evaluate postings. Any inappropriate posts would then result in a various range of sanctions for the student-athlete, from a loss of scholarship to a team dismissal.6 And UNC is not alone – other schools have taken ever harsher approaches to negative publicity and NCAA violations, including banning twitter use for men’s basketball teams at Villanova University, Mississippi State University, and the University of New Mexico, as well as for the football teams at the universities of Miami, South Carolina, Iowa, Boise State, Kansas, and Florida State.7 At Mississippi State, Twitter was banned after a player was criticized for the team’s performance. While at Florida State, the ban went into effect after players’ tweets were picked up on blogs with commentaries containing subject matters from rap lyrics like shooting police officers.8 It’s not only the athletic department administration and the NCAA that are divided on the issues of appropriate social media use and punishments. Even the collegiate coaches are split on the subject. University of Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino has been harsh with his critique of social media use saying, “It’s like taking a little bit of poison…I think technology is a great thing in many instances, and I think it’s poison in others, for 6.) Kelly Whiteside, “North Carolina, NCAA address monitoring social media.” March 12, 2012. campusrivalry/post/2012/03/north-carolina-ncaa-address-monitoring-social-media/1#.Ux-87l5PLOQ 7.) Brandon Marcello, “Rick Stansbury bans Mississippi State from Twitter after criticism.” February 3, 2011. communities/campusrivalry/post/2011/02/mississippi-state-basketball-twitter-ban/1#.Ux-9HF5PLOR 8.) FOX Sports, “Will FSU’s social media ban pay off?” August 7, 2013. noles-twitter-facebook-instagram-ban-2013-season-impact-080713
  5. 5. WHITEPAPER/RE-DEFINING THE GAME 5 EDUCATION Don't prohibit, Be proactive ENCOURAGEMENT Positive reinforcement, Practice makes perfect ENGAGEMENT Open communication, Respect & leadership people in sports especially,” adding that he would ban his players from all forms of social media if possible. Meanwhile, John Calipari, head coach of the men’s basketball team at the University of Kentucky, believes that coaches like Pitino have the wrong mindset. Instead of limiting social media use, Calipari believes that coaches should be encouraging it: “I’m not going to hold my team back from Twitter or Facebook,” but I’m going to teach them,” he said. “I’m going to use it as a positive… What we are trying to tell those kids [is], Hey, you build your brand or you break your brand down.”9 SOCIAL MEDIA MODEL So how do athletic departments find a middle ground in the battle between blanket prohibition and policing, and basic rights governing free speech and reputation building? For one, implementing a social media strategy does not happen overnight. Instead, it is an evolving process based on the fundamentals of education, encouragement and engagement. Any school can implement these principles to find success with social media use among its student-athletes, highlighting their achievements while maintaining the reputation and prestige of the schools they represent on and off the field. Education Education is at the heart of every institution of higher learning. The underlying theme in every university or college’s athletic department is to impart wisdom and guidance on their student- athletes from nutrition to teamwork to equal treatment under the law, so why don’t schools take the same approach with social media? Lack of instruction and training for student-athletes in the social media realm remains an obstacle for the majority of schools. However, instead of addressing the problem, many institutions choose to overpolice and reprimand in place of building positive relationships with their student-athletes. This creates mistrust between student-athletes and the very universities they represent, leading some 9.) News Services, “Pitino, Calipari on different sides.” February 20, 2014. id/10481852/rick-pitino-louisville-cardinals-sounds-social-media
  6. 6. WHITEPAPER/RE-DEFINING THE GAME 6 to even block university or team representatives from viewing any of their online activities.10 Some schools go so far as to completely prohibit social media use on campus or among their student- athletes, afraid their students are too immature or irresponsible to properly use these tools. However, when schools exclude their student-athletes from social media use altogether, they miss out on a vital opportunity to prepare their athletes for the world that awaits them after graduation. We found through our interviews with five sports information directors at universities across the country that the first step many take when tasked with overseeing social media users is to speak with the school’s compliance office to craft a social media policy that can dictate discipline and legally protect the university. While these policies can be useful in an assortment of ways to instill values and expectations, we encourage institutions to take a different approach and place education before policy. Social media education should start by combing through the athletic department’s own personnel and finding coaches, administrators and interns who are the most social media-savvy. Even smaller schools should be able to find people who understand and are active on social media and can provide support, as well as knowledge. Matt Turk, sports information director at California State University Bakersfield, relies “heavily on coaches that are more active on social media” to provide guidance and take responsibility in assisting their respective team. Additional resources include those in the same position at other schools who can provide helpful insight into how they are handling the issue. Snyder describes his league as being an incredible resource, stating “the Pac-12 does a very good job of connecting all of us with similar jobs at each school so there’s a social media kind of chain within the Pac-12 and we try to have a call every 4-6 weeks.” These kinds of conversations give those in the role an opportunity to discuss the issue and seek out advice. Members of the athletic department also need to familiarize themselves with popular social media applications. Administrators should have a meeting with their staff at the start of every school year about new technologies they are using, and then adapting the department’s strategy to those platforms. It is also important for administrators to find a few minutes every week to test out these applications for themselves and try to understand how one might use them. “It’s just a matter of participating in it. I‘m as active in them as I can be in most of those things, not necessarily Snapchat, but Instagram and those other ones, just to see what they’re about,” said Snyder. “I do have a Snapchat account and I thought it’s really awkward for me to do anything there, but I really wanted to understand what it was about. … And who knows what’s coming next year, there’s going to be two or three more.” At the start of every sport’s season, the athletic department should also provide training to student-athletes on expectations of the university, as well as good and bad examples of social media use, why it matters and what is expected of student-athletes both in school and during school hiatuses. Administrators should seek to relate to their student-athletes and begin building a relationship as soon as possible, conveying the fact that everyone is still learning about social media because it is constantly evolving, and no one has all the right answers. Additionally, they should strive to make the presentation more than just a cut and dry facts- driven one. Each presentation should be tailored specifically to the audience, whether it’s a high or low visibility sport, and should address the challenges those athletes might face. Perhaps a more visible sport like men’s basketball will want to engage more with their fans online or may have to deal with more negativity after a loss. In either scenario, effective role-playing and team discussion on possible avenues for success can start a conversation that continues long after the presentation ends. Art Chase, assistant director of athletics at Duke University, uses positive and 10.) Hopkins, Hopkins & Whelton, (2013) “Being Social.”
  7. 7. WHITEPAPER/RE-DEFINING THE GAME 7 negative examples of social media use directly from the teams he’s training, because “nothing is a better teaching tool than experience.” Schools should stress maintaining a positive attitude to their student-athletes while using these platforms, even when faced with criticism or negativity. Student-athletes do not need to respond to every outside comment to gain positive public opinion, but rather should be encouraged to concentrate on publishing content that has personal value. By being proactive about the content they post online, rather than reacting to everyone else’s opinions, student-athletes can more effectively control and define their own personal brand. Some schools may feel more comfortable with an outside source giving a training presentation to their student-athletes. This can be appropriate if the sources are appropriately vetted beforehand. Schools should investigate all backgrounds and ensure that the company is up-to-date and actively using the most current social media tools for their own company. Kevin DeShazo is one such media expert. DeShazo founded Fieldhouse Media and has worked with more than 50 programs across the country, educating student-athletes, coaches and staff on how to use social media to benefit not only the athletes, but the institution as well. He suggests a two-fold approach to a successful social media education. The first step is encouraging student- athletes to develop an online identity – “who they are and what they want to be known for.” The most important part of building an identity is having the student-athletes understand their strengths on and off the field and then highlighting them online whether it ‘s a sense of humor, a strong faith or cooking skills. Chase reminds his Duke athletes it’s important to “be true to who you are,” and not be swayed by others’ online opinions. The second aspect of education DeShazo advocates is the idea of adding value to everything that is said online, rather than adding to the “noise.” Often a student-athlete’s content may not be inappropriate, but is still a “brain dump” onto social media that will add nothing of value. “There’s not a right way to do it, but you have to have a purpose before you do it, and most of them don’t really have a purpose,” DeShazo commented. Coaches and athletic departments should talk to their athletes about viewing social media as a stepping-stone to their career and ask them to share content that could be of value to future employers. Student-athletes can post content that is relevant to their industry of interest, that advocates for a good cause or that shows off their unique skills, all of which an employer might find value in in determining if they would be a right fit for their company. Remember that policies and punishments do not create positive behaviors; education does. Encouragement A successful social media strategy doesn’t end with education. Education provides student-athletes with the tools and the message of what proper social media use can look like in its best form, but it’s up to the athletic department to continue to SOCIAL MEDIA SCORECARD Positive Negative AJ McCarron - On gamedays, the Alabama quarterback posts photos of himself with a bow tie and dedicates it to a cause like fighting breast cancer. Johnny Manziel - After winning the Heisman trophy, the Texas A&M QB posted photos of himself in clubs drinking, even though he was under 21. Johnny McEntee - The backup quarterback at UConn has become an Internet sensation thanks to his ‘trick shot quarterbackʻ YouTube videos. John Urschell - The former Penn State football player and mathlete is keeping an online diary on his road to the NFL Draft. “Be true to who you are.” Braxton Miller - The Ohio State quarterback often communiates with fans, and posts photos with inspirational quotes. Courtney Fortson - This University of Arkansas basketball player was sus- pended indefinitely after comparing practice to a sexual assualt on Twitter. Marlon Williams - After a Texas Tech basketball coach was late to a meeting, Williams critcized his coach on Twitter and had his social media priviledges revoked. “We had a baseball player who started a Twitter feed called ‘Sh** this other player says.ʻ Every time he'd say something stupid, they'd tweet it." - Sports information director -Art Chase, Assistant Director of Athletics at Duke University
  8. 8. WHITEPAPER/RE-DEFINING THE GAME 8 communicate that message throughout the year. If a team is expected to represent its institution well, then the coaches that oversee its players and the athletic department need to continue to have the discussion on proper social media use. DeShazo breaks down student-athletes who have received effective social media training into three groups: those who will change for the better and see value in building their personal brand (60%), those who will modify their behavior for the short term before returning to their old ways (30%) and those that will simply never change their poor social media behavior (10%). In order to effectively reach the student-athletes who only improve for the short- term, positive reinforcement must be a heavily utilized technique. Positive reinforcement can work in any environment, whether it’s a child learning how to ride a bike or an adult receiving a bonus for a job well done at work. Student-athletes thrive on a combination of positive reinforcement and competition; it fuels their time in the gym, their time on the practice field and their game time performance. So why not combine these two techniques within the social media arena as well? Coaches and athletic departments should view social media training similar to a sports environment in which the user’s skills will only get better with frequent repetitions and a solid support system. The more encouragement the student-athlete receives to use social media in a positive way and the more he/she posts, the more it becomes a second nature to the individual. DeShazo instructs the coaches he advises to “tell your players to tweet on every game, because they more you talk about it, the more you encourage them to tweet positive things, the more that’s going to be in their minds,” and the more value and impact it will have over time on the positive representation of the school and the athletic team online. It’s not only repetitions that lead to success, but also small recognitions along the way that the student-athlete is excelling online with their use of social media tools. DeShazo recommends scrolling through your player’s tweets every now and then, finding positive ones, and “highlighting one of your players, saying thank you for sending this out, you represented yourself well, you represented our team well.” This creates a competitive environment among an already competitive crowd where those that aren’t promoted are left to question what they could be putting online that would warrant such recognition and how they can better represent their team. Some of Wichita State and Oklahoma State’s athletic programs go so far as to publicize and promote their players’ Twitter accounts by re-tweeting the best ones in order to further acknowledge their great work in a public setting. Engagement Many schools and universities have acknowledged monitoring as a part of their student-athlete social media approach. Unfortunately, for many schools monitoring accounts and punishing bad behavior is the only aspect of student-athlete social media use they engage in. The techniques covered thus far slice away at this outdated practice and pave the way for responsible users and personal empowerment among student-athletes supported by a knowledgeable and encouraging administration. However, just like learning anything new there will be missteps. So what does effective monitoring look like in this setting and how do coaches and athletic departments appropriately hold student-athletes accountable for their online activities? It all starts with active engagement. Engagement is best implemented by developing open communication, respect and student leadership. Athletic departments and coaching staffs should maintain an open-door policy where student-athletes feel trusted rather than policed. Often student-athletes feel undervalued and untrusted by the administration to use social media effectively, when they should be viewed as capable adults who are learning the best practices of a new tool. Student-athletes should never fear reprimand for asking questions about boundaries in social media use including who to follow or if re-tweets or re-posting content by other people is acceptable.
  9. 9. WHITEPAPER/RE-DEFINING THE GAME 9 Chase says that, like at many schools, cases have arisen in which student-athletes used social media inappropriately, but that the Duke athletic department takes advantage of these missteps as a teaching experience. “We’re all human, and we’re all going to make mistakes, but what we try and do is use these as teaching tools…if a red flag goes up we can offer assistance and guidance and say hey maybe that’s not appropriate for you to be putting on Twitter or that’s not an appropriate picture to appear on your personal Instagram account. We can help them learn best practices.” Furthermore, student-athletes maintain their own student leadership in the form of team captains and seniority within the team. An athletic department or coach is in position to be able to task those student leaders with not only representing the best examples of social media use online, but also with looking out for their teammates as much on the social media front as they do in the locker room. Disciplinary practices will be a part of every strategy and while those policies should be written so that the mistakes are punished appropriately for the action that occurred, it’s important to also keep in mind the desire for student-athletes to return to the social media space after making a mistake. Students should feel confident revisiting their online channels with new skills and a desire to do better than before, rather than a distress over messing up again. Many schools choose to monitor profanity, drug, alcohol, or sexual references, or violence and keep a tally on those that do so on a repetitive basis. This can be an effective approach if used for teaching rather than policing. Often simply showing student-athletes their mistakes laid out in front of them produces a level of understanding and desire for self-improvement without the need for further discipline. DeShazo sums it up best stating, “if you show them what they’re doing online, most [student-athletes] have no idea. They just pull out their phone, type 140 characters, hit send, and go about their day… it’s just second nature to them.” By effectively reminding them of the education they’ve received, the positive reputation they’re building and the lasting impression they want to leave both on the program and on their future employers, coaches and athletic departments can make student-athletes not only social media savvy, but also able to create a positive reputation both on and off the digital playing field. CONCLUSION As social media use reaches unforeseen levels, the importance of training student-athletes on its appropriate use becomes all that more important. Many in collegiate athletics cite the media’s coverage of irresponsible occurrences in social media as validation for the end of its use among student-athletes. Yet those whose very roles are defined by higher learning miss out on an opportunity to educate. Social media has helped millions of people in purposeful ways to build businesses, fundraise or gain financial backing and achieve coveted exposure for a cause or brand. These platforms can also provide positive reputation awareness for student-athletes and the universities or colleges they represent. The formula for student- athlete social media success rests on the pillars of proactive education, positive reinforcement, and active engagement. With this strategy set in place, schools can make a positive difference in the lives of their student-athletes, better preparing them for the real world, and allowing them to move into successful careers with a lasting impression of an alma mater that supported and cultivated their talents on the digital world stage.