COLLEGE PARK – Just like their counterparts in the NFL and the NCAA, Maryland high school coaches are instituting policies to restrict what their athletes say on Twitter and Facebook.With a growing number of high school athletes getting into trouble with posts on social media sites, coaches said they want to ensure their student-athletes are tweeting with discretion.
Though the policies prevent students from freely speaking their minds, constitutional experts said that athletes waive some of their First Amendment rights by joining a team.
When Elijah Brooks became head coach of the DeMatha Catholic High School football team in May, one of his first moves at the Hyattsville school was to enact a team social media policy.
With more than 85 percent of his team on Twitter and Facebook, Brooks said it was necessary to create a policy that restricts posts that contain foul language, disparage the school or disrespect family members.
After the first strike, the student’s parents are notified. After the second, he considers suspending the student from the team. After the third, the player risks immediate removal from school.
“There will be consequences. Everyone has an understanding of how important it is to use good judgment in social media,” he said, adding that none of his players have violated the new policy.
At DuVal High School in Lanham, football coach Dameon Powell uses a zero-tolerance policy. He banned his players from posting any team information online in an effort to protect the program.
“We’re not going to tolerate placing information on our team on Facebook or Twitter or talking negative about anybody,” Powell said. “If I do catch them, we’ll suspend them from the team … once I tell them up front, that’s it. If I found out, I’ll suspend them off the top. They only get one shot with me.”
Powell began paying attention to his athletes’ activity online after a player complained on Facebook that he didn’t receive a trophy at a banquet dinner.
The athlete was not suspended from the team, but Powell said he would have been under the new policy.
It took a disgruntled basketball player tweeting after a loss to inspire Quince Orchard High School football coach and assistant athletic director Dave Mencarini to set a policy in stone.
Mencarini is an active tweeter. He follows all of his athletes at the Gaithersburg school and believes 140-character mentions can be an effective means of communicating with his team.
“If used correctly it can be a powerful tool,” Mencarini said. “The key words [are] ‘used correctly.’”
At a team meeting last month, Mencarini advised his players on how to carry themselves on Twitter. His three keys: make sure you know what you’re saying, how you’re saying it and who you’re saying it to.
Mencarini often scrolls through his timeline, checking what his players are tweeting. They could be suspended if they violate the policy, he said.
“Sometimes the words are so strong that there’s no gray area in the interpretation in what was written,” Mencarini said.
Young players don’t always realize the ramifications of their actions, he added.
“I don’t think kids realize that their future employers can read,” Mencarini said. “To them its like a video game – you play it and if you don’t like what’s going on you can reset it. I don’t think kids realize the damage it can do.”
At private schools like DeMatha, courts have held that administrators and coaches have more power to restrict students’ free speech rights. But at public schools like Quince Orchard, coaches must be more careful, said Mark Graber, a constitutional expert at the University of Maryland Law School.
Historically, courts have been of two minds on student athlete free speech issues. Some have held that students waive their right to free speech as a condition of being a high school athlete. Others have taken the position that student athletes don’t give up that First Amendment right.
“The courts have generally been very reluctant to hold schools to significant constitutional standards, particularly students in extracurriculars,” Graber said.
Graber said cases involving schools restricting student social media use are starting to emerge, but there’s no still no clear precedent. But, he said, it is comparable to a Supreme Court ruling that allowed coaches to test their students for drugs without suspicion of drug use.
“It looks like on this [drug testing] logic that in fact because they’re on the team, the coach can say no Twitter,” he said.
In New Jersey, Don Bosco Preparatory High School cornerback Yuri Wright made headlines in January when his scholarship to Michigan was rescinded after he tweeted sexually explicit and racist remarks.
Malcolm Brown, a sophomore safety on Mencarini’s squad, goes by @Division1Bound_ on Twitter. He said Wright’s mistake was a wake-up call, but it wouldn’t prevent him from tweeting as often as he does.
“I am always conscious of what I am saying whether it is on Twitter or it comes straight out of my mouth,” Brown said. “I haven’t received offers or contact from college coaches yet, but I do completely understand what is said and shouldn’t be said on Twitter, and what could happen if anything inappropriate was posted.”
Despite incidents in New Jersey and at his own high school, he said he doesn’t see a need for a social media policy at Quince Orchard.
“Everyone knows what is considered inappropriate and what isn’t because we are all in high school and should be mature enough to know what to say … That shows what type of person you are if you think it is alright to post things bad-mouthing a coach or another person,” Brown said.
Brooks said all high school sports teams should adopt a social media policy to prevent more high school students from getting into trouble.
“When you’re dealing with kids, sometimes you have to take action like this to really discourage them from making a costly mistake,” he said.