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College coaches shouldn’t be able to control players’ social media, says federal agency

The ruling applies to Northwestern and 16 other FBS private schools.

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

A new ruling handed down Tuesday by the National Labor Relations Board has declared that it is “unlawful” for Northwestern football players to be governed by rules that limit their freedom of expression.

The ruling — which also applies to 16 other FBS private institutions, including Stanford, Notre Dame, and Baylor — tackles certain social media policies favored by football coaches. According to ESPN’s report on the ruling, Northwestern coaches can no longer strictly regulate the way players use social media or control what players say on social media platforms, beyond offering guidelines like an employer might.

This ruling won’t apply to the many public schools that play football and comprise the majority of FBS.

Wait, teams monitor and regulate their players’ social media?

Constantly. Athletic departments around the country devote resources to reading and watching everything players post online.

Some even ban players from using social media altogether. Florida State and Clemson are among the two most prominent with Twitter bans during the season.

“It eliminates clutter,” FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said in August, via “It’s one less thing. You ain’t got enough time. There’s not enough time in the day to be a student, to do things right off the field and to play college football. There ain’t enough time in the day to do all that stuff. If you spent that hour in social media, spent it looking at your playbook or working on school, how much better would you be?”

“It’s just a mental thing to keep you focused,” former Clemson running back Zac Brooks said in 2015. “It’s like a check-in; we’re here to work now. Guys don’t really care. Nobody despises it. But everybody’s happy when we can get back on, no doubt.”

Social media bans aren’t just in place for college football teams. Teams in men’s basketball and other sports have used them as well.

So, what’s this new Northwestern social media ruling about?

The action stems from a charge filed in August 2015 against Northwestern by David Rosenfeld, an activist labor lawyer. Rosenfeld’s argument comes from aspects of the 2014 ruling that Northwestern football players are employees.

Rosenfeld found that certain aspects of the athlete handbook were "unlawful," including:

  • Coaches' monitoring of players' social media practices
  • Bans on discussion of "any aspects of the team ... with anyone," discussing individual grievances with fellow team members or "third parties," including lawyers and union representatives, and all contacts with the media unless they were arranged by the "athletic communications office."

ESPN cites a social media incident involving former NU quarterback Kain Colter, who testified during the NLRB hearings in 2014.

“When he posted a photo of himself in Oakley sunglasses that were a gift at a celebrity golf outing, an assistant coach texted him within 10 minutes of the posting that he must remove it. The coach was concerned that the selfie might be construed as an endorsement of Oakley products.”

Following Rosenfeld’s claims, Northwestern agreed it will only monitor what athletes post and essentially lay out suggestions on what to not post.

Players from these schools can now freely talk to members of the media, without going through the school or athletic department first. This could give reporters more access, if players choose to provide that.

Joe Gisondi, a professor of journalism at Eastern Illinois University, told College Media Review that the role of sports information directors has changed drastically, and a lot of that has to do with the modern social media age.

“It used to be that sports information directors were there to facilitate coverage. Now they’re there to protect a corporate image. It’s bad for fans and athletes,” said Gisondi.

How can this be enforced?

"If an employer says they will not comply, the NLRB has to seek enforcement through the federal court of appeals,” said SB Nation’s David Fucillo, a licensed attorney in California who has previously clerked with the NLRB.

Is the NCAA as a whole becoming more lax about social media policy?

This isn’t directly related, but this past August, the NCAA passed a bylaw that allows athletic department staffers to be a lot more active and engaged on social media. The rule allows coaches to interact with high school recruits by favoriting, retweeting, or tagging them on various social media.

"I think social media's extremely important, because remember, these are young people's lives," Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck told SB Nation in April. "We're here to be teachers and educators, and that's the way they communicate. That's the way they learn. Not many young people pick up the newspaper anymore and read it from front to back. All they do is go on Twitter and social media."