It was recently announced that Florida State University and Clemson University will once again ban their student-athletes from social media during the upcoming football season. For anyone following along, this was not a surprise. Clemson has had a ban in place since 2012; FSU since 2011. The Tigers have posted a 32-7 record in those three years, while the Seminoles have won a national title and three ACC titles in four. Those in support of the ban point to those records as evidence that the practice is positive, that it equates to wins—and wins are worth stripping away students’ constitutional rights.
And now, the National Labor Relations Board has effectively turned its back and run away from the Northwestern University football players seeking to unionize. The five-member board took more than a year to reach the decision that it wasn’t going to make a decision after all. The members voted unanimously that they would not assert jurisdiction in the case, but they also didn’t dispute that Northwestern players could be considered employees. The door is still open, in other words, for further efforts to unionize. But the NLRB’s decision to not interfere effectively reverses the ruling that came out of the board’s Chicago office 16 months ago, which stated that football players on scholarship at private universities are, in fact, employees.
The NCAA—along with its member conferences and institutions—generates more than $11 billion annually. The athletes are not paid outright, but instead awarded scholarships, often on a yearly basis, which can be terminated if the students are not performing to expectations. More succinctly, the students are subject to their employer's control. Meanwhile, NCAA coaches, executives, and athletic directors earn multi-million dollar salaries off of student labor. In 40 states, the highest-paid public employee is either a college football or basketball coach. Despite this, the unionization movement wasn’t about money. Northwestern’s athletes wanted basic rights, like health protection, as well as improved graduation rates and guaranteed scholarships. Most importantly, they wanted their voices to be heard.
The term student-athlete was created by the NCAA in the 1950s. It was necessary, write Robert A. McCormick and Amy Christian McCormick, two law professors at Michigan universities, “to cloak the actual relationship between the parties.” Walter Byers, the NCAA executive director at the time, later wrote in his memoir:
[The] threat was the dreaded notion that NCAA athletes could be identified as employees by state industrial commissions and the courts. To address that threat, we crafted the term student-athlete, and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations as a mandated substitute for such words as players and athletes. We told college publicists to speak of “college teams,” not football or basketball “clubs,” a word common to the pros.
In McCormick and McCormick’s 2006 paper, “The Myth of the Student-Athlete” they write, “Employers pay their employees in exchange for services. Universities likewise award grants-in-aid to athletes in exchange for the athletes’ services in their sports.” And the students are held to rigorous standards, both on and off the field. They are not allowed to control the use of their own likeness, or sell their autographs for money, while their institutions profit wildly from the same things. The social media ban is poignant example of the freedom of expression the students are afforded. Effectively, once they sign that scholarship offer, they relinquish their rights.
Dr. Justin Lovich is a professor in the sport management department at SUNY–Cortland, but he was a Ph.D. student at FSU when the school first instituted the social media ban. Publically, the players were in support of it, as they have been every year since. When the season was over, the ban was lifted until sophomore defensive back Tyler Hunter was pulled over for a traffic stop in Tallahassee. In response, he tweeted lyrics from the Lil Boosie song, “Fuck the Police,” and the ban was immediately re-instated.
“They see it as a problem as a sports team, this tweet, or social media post, can hurt our team’s brand, hurt our team’s reputation, or it can be a distraction for what we're trying to do in the field and therefore has to be regulated,” Lovich says.
In the past, some schools employed social network monitoring services, like UDilligence, requiring students to install software that logs and records what they say and then alerts coaches or athletic directors to the publication of any ill-advised thoughts. This Orwellian measure is “very much what you would see at the professional level,” Lovich says.
But the NCAA isn’t the professional level, as it keeps reminding everyone. University athletes are students, first and foremost. If that’s true however, then the ban, Lovich says, is a missed educational opportunity.
“As an athletics program situated within the university there is an obligation to not just prepare [the students] for football, but they are also expected to adhere to the university's academic mission as well,” Lovich says. “There is a moral obligation to take it upon themselves to engage in this teaching moment. If someone tweets something that’s controversial ... punishment is only one tool in the bag. There’s a chance to teach and engage on that moment. ‘Why is this a problem? Where is this coming from? Lets talk about how this.’ These sort of conversations need to be had at a very large level.”
The students that publicly support the bans are, perhaps, genuine in that support. Or, they might be focused on maintaining their scholarship and relationship with their coaches and not tarnishing their reputation by speaking out in a paternalistic environment. Social media has taken power away from the institutions. Historically, universities have always been able to control the message by limiting which athletes can speak and to whom and about what. On Twitter, that goes out the window.
Social media use is much more popular than it was in 2011, when FSU initiated their ban. Now, it’s a huge part of what it means to be a college student, Lovich says. “If you take it away in a broad sweeping ban, from athletes, you are, in a certain sense, taking away part of what it means to be a college student. Depriving them of that aspect is almost another form of exploitation. When they’re not being paid the way professionals are, I have a real hard time with you punishing them the way professionals are punished.”
Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter launched the effort to unionize in April 2014 alongside Ramogi Huma and Luke Bonner. Colter graduated that year, with a degree in psychology, and then went undrafted by the NFL. In the wake of the NLRB decision, Colter told Deadspin that the worst part of the ruling wasn’t the reversal, but the relationships he lost along the way.
“I lost my alma mater,” Colter said. “I feel like I’m in exile. I still have my teammates and friends, but the coaches, administrators, none of them. That’s the hardest part, because I sacrificed so much. I loved my four years there.”
The next step for the unionization movement could be the federal courts. Which is also the space where the social media bans could be lifted if a player ever chooses to challenge them—though that seems unlikely.
“There’s too much at stake for them,” Lovich says. “They are already in a position in the American college athletics environment where they are disempowered.” As Colter has said repeatedly, the movement has never been about the money. It’s much bigger than that. "We're asking for a seat at the table to get our voice heard,” Colter told the Chicago Tribune last year.
“I think it’s primarily a movement to try and re-claim, or maybe claim for the first time, some empowerment in that relationship,” Lovich says. “The way it is now, it’s pretty much take it or leave it when they sign that scholarship agreement.”
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.