clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Mike Leach's Twitter ban, and the problem with social media

Is there a double-standard at play? Is Mike Leach restricting free speech? And why do you care about what athletes tweet?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

I've seen a lot of responses to Mike Leach's Twitter ban -- some of them agreeing with the decision and others vehemently opposing it. The decision to keep Washington State football players off Twitter is a polarizing one, with some decrying the move as a way to stifle free speech. The issue, however, isn't quite so simple.

In this case, Washington State University is akin to an employer -- even if real amounts of cash isn's changing hands. Players are given scholarship money and stipends, and in return perform a service; Practice, games and all the other things that come along with being a football player are the service. We can debate the whole college athletes being paid thing, but in basic terms athletes are employees.

Because the players are, in theory, employees, there are expectations that come along with the job. There are team rules: Players are expected to keep their grades up, attend practices and stay on the right side of the law. Some of the rules are, in fact, related to laws -- drugs and arrests can result in dismissal -- and others are just rules defined by the coach. Breaking these rules leads to the dreaded "violation of team rules" punishments.

A Twitter ban is now one of those rules, along with showing up to meetings on time and going to class. Being a member of the football team is a privilege, and that privilege can be revoked at the coach's discretion. It's not a right, and standards have to be met to remain in good standing. The same goes for a "real job." You can be fired for being stupid or saying stupid things -- if your employer catches wind of it.

And no, the first amendment doesn't protect the players' rights to tweet.

I've seen quite a bit of uproar about a possible double-standard at play when it comes to the Twitter ban. The outside world sees Mike Leach as an outspoken, eccentric coach, so why would he muzzle his team? There's a lot of painting in black-and-white, but the Twitter ban is more complicated than that.

Like his players, Mike Leach is an employee. There are consequences for his actions. If he comes out and holds a profanity-laced press conference where he rips into everyone and everything, he'll face discipline. If he criticizes officials or the conference, he'll face monetary fines or suspensions.

The difference between, say, Leach's rant in the locker room that's been replayed on YouTube repeatedly and a player tweeting out vulgar items is pretty simple. I don't care what a coach or player does behind closed doors. When it's being done in a public setting, however, there's a problem. One side of the equation is private; the other is broadcast to the world, projecting an image out to the public.

Simply, Leach is smart enough to be rather even-keeled in press conference. If he were reading some of the tweets that caused the ban to be enacted aloud, there'd be issues. He's not stepping in front of a mic -- and Twitter really is just a big microphone to the world -- and talking about hoes, blowjobs and other things that are degrading to women.

But ... but ... but what about his colorful tangents on the radio, like the whole anniversary talk?

Again, there's a pretty big difference between joking about his wife "not it out of this unscathed" and "bitch get on your knees and swallow my kids" being tweeted by a college athlete (sorry for the explicit nature of the phrase, but it was done to illustrate a point).

But ... but ... but what about context?

This is important, and something I've been talking with Andrew Sharp about all morning. In a large majority of cases, football players are tweeting rap lyrics. I understand that. When Tyler Hunter tweeted about killing a cop, I immediately recognized what it was: He was tweeting a Boosie lyric after being harassed by a police officer. There was context.

Sharp, by the way, wrote about Twitter bans this morning, and did it well. He hits on both sides of the issue, and his last two points are important ones.

For most of the world, however, the context is lost. I'd guess that the large majority of the public would see a tweet that looks vulgar while not realizing it was a lyric. College kids like to tweet lyrics, and those come without context. Take by themselves, one could get the impression that these are stream-of-conciousnes thoughts when in reality it's probably a sign that the tweeter is listening to music.

This creates a problem. When the context is lost and an offensive tweet is taken by itself, the potential for a firestorm is there. Recently, a Washington State player sent out a tweet with the n word. It was a lesser-known rap lyric, and it still didn't make it right. Had it made it out into the wild, there would've been issues. Same thing with Hunter: The context was lost, and the athletic department had to go into damage control mode.

But ... but ... but why not educate them?

Because it's a hassle at this point. We're in the middle of the season and, while there's been ongoing social media education, taking time to do crash courses isn't the best use of time. Members of the football team are already dealing with classes, tutoring sessions, film and practice, while trying to fit a ton of information into their brains. Throwing extensive social media classes on top of it all doesn't make a ton of sense right now.

So Leach just squashed the whole thing. Instead of piling something else on, he enacted a team-wide ban. It was the easy way out, sure, but it makes sense for the time being. Could he revisit it in the offseason, after tackling the issue? Sure. But right now probably isn't the time.

It's also important to note -- for context -- that Leach isn't the most technically savvy person around. He's said quite a few times that he always ends up breaking computers and has someone who helps him with the technology aspect of his job. His wonderful wife, Sharon, tweets from his account. Leach isn't the most progressive coach when it comes to technology.

But ... but ... but I need to know what these college athletes are thinking and saying!

I can't help you. This sounds like a personal problem.

It's not as though we're missing out on any infinite wisdom here -- except for Andrew Furney, whose account is a national treasure. For the most part, the tweets are banal. You shouldn't really care about what an athlete says, because it's not that much different from a typical college kid -- they're just in the spotlight more.

But it does become a problem when the school is having to put out fires caused by context-free tweets that are deemed offensive. Leach is a grown-ass man that, while rambling and random, knows that consequences for his action. Athletes ... not so much. And when they're acting as representatives of the university, sometimes it's just better to shut off the social media until the school can get a better handle on the problem.