Football and free speech

Division I college football coaches live a life focused on one thing — winning college football games. For this they are richly rewarded with salary, fame and adulation above and beyond what any amateur sport probably ought to provide.

Such tunnel vision can lead to lapses in judgment, and that's what seems to have happened to Towson University's Rob Ambrose, who has banned his athletes from using Twitter. Preventing college students from exercising their right to free speech is not teaching them right from wrong; it's only putting winning ahead of everything a college ought to be about.


To his credit, Mr. Ambrose has insisted that he doesn't mean to make the ban permanent, only to maintain it until his players are educated on how to use the social network responsibly. Interestingly, his decision sprang not from the actions of his own players but the suspension of Lehigh University wide receiver Ryan Spadola, who helped end the Tigers season with a clutch performance in a playoff game but was later suspended for tweeting a racial slur not long before the contest.

Disciplining a player for behaving irresponsibly is not only a reasonable action by any coach but absolutely mandatory. Using a racial slur on Twitter is not much different from yelling it at Towson Town Center or writing it on the side of Burdick Hall. In any of those examples, the player should have to face the consequences for such an antisocial action.


But just as you can't just take away the player's voice or writing hand, you can't just deny him any particular mode of communication. First, because it's impractical: There are countless other Internet-based ways to express oneself beyond Twitter, and a user can easily hide his or her identity. Second, because the player learns nothing from the experience except that his coach has little regard for his intellect or judgment.

How did we ever get to a point where a college student can't speak (or tweet) freely? Twitter is just a tool. In a different era, the school newspaper — or even a soapbox — might have served the same function and, to our knowledge, both continue to be available to Towson athletes.

Meanwhile, concerns over academic freedom have motivated a handful of senators to offer legislation that would prohibit colleges from using spyware or similar means to monitor social networking, or from requiring students to provide user names and passwords or to "friend" school officials. And while we would support upholding student free speech, is a complicated state law really necessary to reinforce what ought to be a First Amendment right?

Here's an idea. Why don't the folks in Towson and Annapolis just take a few deep breaths and treat college students like young adults and citizens of the United States?

If Mr. Ambrose is worried about his players acting irresponsibly, he ought to take a tip from his peers and tell them to not act irresponsibly. Of the various approaches, the most sensible appears to be the policy at the Naval Academy, where players are told not to post anything they wouldn't want to see on the front page of The Sun. As a school official observed, "We figure [if] you're mature enough to come here and go on and serve in the military, you're mature enough to handle this."

That's hardly unique to the Academy. Any 18-year-old undergraduate is already old enough to vote in an election, serve in the armed services or be tried as an adult in a state or federal court. Surely, he or she can be trusted on a computer keyboard, too.

Or, as Alabama Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant once said, "Show class, have pride and display character. If you do, winning takes care of itself." He might have added that preserving a little bit of freedom never hurts a school's academic reputation either.