Reports of schools violating NCAA regulations by providing incentives to student athletes are nothing new. Numerous universities have been sanctioned for such violations in recent years, including the University of Miami, Ohio State University and the University of Southern California, among others. The most recent scandal, involving the University of North Carolina, offers a new twist on an old theme, however. The UNC scandal is notable because it was social media that first alerted NCAA officials that something was amiss. Tweets made by a student player on Twitter revealed that he was receiving unsanctioned benefits from the school.
In the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations, UNC was cited for failing to properly monitor the use of social media by student athletes. In response to the NCAA’s unprecedented actions in this case, universities across the nation have taken steps to limit, and in some cases, entirely prevent, athletes’ use of social media. These actions put schools in the precarious position of trying to restrict the First Amendment rights of their student athletes, most of whom are adults.
Some schools have stopped short of forbidding student athletes from using social media altogether, making mandatory monitoring a condition of team membership. Others have ventured even further into shaky legal ground by enforcing a total prohibition on social media use for all student athletes. Because the Supreme Court has made it clear that university students give up none of their First Amendment rights when they enroll, curtailing these rights leaves a university vulnerable to legal action from student athletes. It could be argued that banning student athletes from using social media rises to the level of a prior restraint on speech.
In the event of a legal challenge, universities will be forced to defend themselves in court and may end up paying damages. A more proactive approach might be to put an end to inappropriate incentives for student athletes, rather than taking questionable steps to prevent the athletes from telling anyone they are receiving them.