Xavier player comments reopens debate on athlete free speech

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Because of Saturday’s Xavier-Cincinnati brawl, and the subsequent PR disaster that ensued when Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons took to the podium for the post-game press conference, there has been a renewal in the conversation over free speech and the college athlete.

Critics condemned Holloway and Lyons, and rightfully so, for their words, but the question ultimately comes back to the administration.

What the unfortunate post-game press conference shows is the lack of education, whether a last-minute briefing before the players took the microphone or an organized, concerted effort to teach media skills, or both, on Xavier’s part.

The result was a series of sound bites that, contextualized or not, associated “thug,” “gangster,” and “zip ‘em up” with the eighth-ranked team in the country.

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And though Mick Cronin and Cincinnati won the public relations game that day by restricting their players from comment, they are not above the blame.

An alarming trend is developing in this age of new, more accessible digital media and conventional wisdom is backwards and paradoxical. The restriction of freedoms supposedly translates into a development of maturity, when handling those freedoms in a public forum.

Cases have emerged where players have mishandled Twitter and other outlets, notably Josh Smith calling Loyola Marymount players “bums” and Mississippi State’s Ravern Johnson going off on head coach Rick Stansbury about his role on the team.

Both instances have drawn criticism, including the suggestion that schools ban athletes from Twitter all together, which Stansbury did, in the wake of the Johnson incident.

And that has been the prevailing sentiment.

If a player can’t use the outlet correctly, ban the whole team from it. Some schools have done it preemptively, in an attempt to stop problems before they happen.

Schools are within their right to do so, but the question remains: should they? And why has there not been some sort of dissenting opinion, in favor of the players?

Mick Cronin was correct in a press conference on Saturday, saying that few of his players, and few in the NCAA as a whole, “are ever going to make a dollar playing basketball.”

With that in mind, will any other profession coddle and protect these athletes in the real world? Will another boss spend his time making sure his employees are in line on social networks?

No. If you mess up, you get the boot, and that’s that. Rules are clearly outlined from the beginning and, if broken, have consequences.

And for those chosen few who will play professionally, mishandling of social media and public image immediately cuts away at marketability, when it comes to endorsements and sponsorships.

On the other hand, an athlete who can not only handle social media, but excel in exploiting its benefits, can become an even more marketable figure.

The operating principle of the First Amendment, dating back to its earliest form, was the idea that the government could not practice “prior restraint.” The government could not keep one from publishing something, but certain words are not immune to prosecution, once published.

In the late 18th century, words that were “false, scandalous, [or] malicious” toward the government were liable for punishment.

Why don’t schools operate on a similar principle with their players?

A concerted effort at education, rather than prohibition, would help to develop valuable skills for their athletes that, in the end, appear to be a better public relations move than sweeping restrictions.

There, programs should draw distinctions between proper and improper use of social media, teaching how to handle digital media criticism, and growing a personal brand, all part of an education that takes place outside of the traditional college classroom.

The NCAA says, as part of its core purpose, “to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.”

“Higher education” is as much about what is learned in the classroom as what is learned through the experiences that only college can offer. Athletic programs often rally around the idea that they turn young men into grown adults, but how does limiting public, free speech move in that direction?

Coaches say they recruit players based on both character and skill. Those who don’t say it aloud wouldn’t dare publicly say they could care less about a player’s character.

But the irony is that limiting a player’s free speech through Twitter is ultimately showing a distrust in the player’s character, which was, supposedly, important in the recruitment of that young man.

And assuming that a small detail like freedom to use Twitter won’t shift a recruit’s view of a school in the future is to overlook the trends of the NCAA.

Athletes are already prohibited from profiting directly from their skill, cannot sign endorsement deals, and are subjected to schedules that, many times, cut into family time, especially around the holidays.

Now they’re asking to hand over free speech?

Opponents will point to the way in which many young people use Twitter, usually for chatter amongst friends, reporting of mundane daily activities, etc. Who cares if players can do that? Why don’t they just text?

But speech is speech.

The aim of protecting it is not necessarily so Player A can tell a friend his half-thought-out, 140-character review of the latest television show.

Instead, it is for players like North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall and Missouri’s Kim English, who have shown their personality through their tweets, building their personal brand and showing their maturity in handling such a platform.

I am 20-yearsold. I’m six days younger than Kendall Marshall. Take a look through my Twitter feed. Would any college coach throw me off a team for what I’ve said?

You cannot punish the many for actions of the few. Prohibition is the easy way out.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_