Towson's resurgent football season ended when wide receiver Ryan Spadola had 13 catches — a
Stadium record —to help Lehigh beat the Tigers in the playoffs in December.
The next week, Spadola didn't even play. He'd been suspended by the NCAA because he used a racial slur in a message he sent out on Twitter prior to the Towson game.
Towson coach Rob Ambrose, having seen how Twitter could hurt a team, decided to spend the first few weeks of the offseason monitoring his players' use of the social media tool and quickly decided to ban it until he felt his players had been properly educated on using it.
At about the same time that Ambrose came to his decision, though, a group of Maryland legislators introduced a bill that would prevent colleges and universities from monitoring students' social media activities. Senate bill 434, presented two weeks ago, would make it illegal for schools to force students to make their tweets public, or to require them to "friend" coaches or other officials on Facebook. A hearing on the bill, which has bipartisan support, is scheduled for Feb. 29.
Coaches and athletics officials who carefully monitor what players say to reporters have struggled to react to new technology allowing athletes unfiltered communication with the public. As they try to protect the reputation of their institutions — and in some cases avoid NCAA violations — they're drawing attention from lawyers worried about defending the First and Fourth Amendments.
Bradley Shear, a Bethesda-based lawyer and social media expert, said many schools have gone too far. Their requests that students make information public or install software meant to monitor their actions is not only a breach of free speech and privacy but also sets a dangerous legal precedent for the schools, Shear said.
"Obviously, this is not the right thing to do for the students," he said. "But what schools don't understand is the sort of liability they are taking on by doing this."
Shear uses the death of Virginia student Yeardley Love as an example. Had the University of Virginia been monitoring her social media use and failed to identify troubling messages, or if it had monitored the football team but not the women's lacrosse team, it could be found negligent and face millions of dollars in damages.
As for Ambrose's rule — and he's hardly the first coach to ban Twitter; former Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams once asked that his players not use it during the season, and other football coaches have called for a full prohibition — Shear said it "clearly violates the Constitution."
"Not being allowed to tweet out plays or getting in trouble for saying something about the coaches? That's fine," he said. "But for Towson University, a public university, to say that you can't talk about eating a Snickers in your dorm room? This is the United States of America. That's simply not allowed."
Sen. Ron Young, a Democrat representing Frederick and Washington counties, sponsored bill 434 — and parallel legislation that would prevent managers from monitoring employees' social media accounts, or those of applicants — said that unfamiliarity with modern technology has allowed those in charge to take steps that amount to "more eroding of constitutional rights."
"It's like saying, 'Can I go to your house and read your mail?'" he said. "It's getting into a dangerous area, and those incremental losses of freedom, where does it stop?"
Young tried to pass similar legislation toward the end of last year's session and was unable to; he's unsure of whether the two bills will get the support needed this time around.
"I think it's so important. College students are saying stupid things on there, they are using it wrong," he said. "That stuff will be there forever. But you simply can't put that sort of control in, and I don't think a lot of older people understand it enough to see the problem."
Towson's Ambrose, whose mother is a Maryland district court judge, said Monday he had no plan to permanently bar his players from using Twitter.
"Yeah, I took pretty drastic action," he said. "But for me, it was the cold water on the face to get their attention. This is something that needs to be talked about, because these kids can't just keep using this form of communication without really understanding how to use it."
Ambrose said that he has addressed the use of Twitter in recent team meetings and that the school will bring in a speaker to discuss the issue. When Ambrose feels his players understand the public and permanent nature of what they post, he will lift the ban.
Mike Harris, a senior associate director of athletics at Towson, said that the department's policy is to educate athletes on the proper use of social media and that any decision on monitoring or banning its use is made by individual coaches.
The Towerlight, Towson's school newspaper, reported players took to Twitter to say their goodbyes.
"We have to delete our twitter see u later tweets!!!!! #R.I.P.," wrote Terrance West, a running back from Baltimore who won the inaugural Jerry Rice Award, given to the top freshman in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision. Quarterback Grant Enders put it succinctly: "#Coachisreallymakingusdeleteourtwitterstho." Both accounts have since been deleted.
Maryland faced its own issue with Twitter Saturday night, when the basketball team's leading scorer, Terrell Stoglin, expressed dismay over being benched in a loss to Duke. Stoglin would later delete the post and apologize, and assistant coach Scott Spinelli said Monday that the team will continue to allow players to use Twitter.
"The policy here is Coach [Mark] Turgeonreally wants his guys or our players to mature and he allows them to use social media networks like Twitter as part of being a young college student and maturing, so they should be able to handle it," Spinelli said.
Many NCAA schools have taken measures to watch what players say via Twitter and Facebook, especially in the wake of North Carolina's football program being cited for failing to monitor its players' social media accounts. Maryland has a staff member from each program assigned to monitor players. Several companies are now offering software that tracks accounts and assigns "threat levels" based on the content posted there, though no local school has signed up for those services.
Instead, they have staff members looking not only for remarks that would reflect badly on the school and possibly violate university rules — this year, Maryland issued five pages of social media guidelines — but also for messages that could cause the athlete harm.
"We don't want stalkers to know where they are," Towson's Harris said. "They've got to be very careful about what they make public, and they need to be sure that what they put on there won't hurt them with future employers or grad school administrators."
Schools must also search for evidence of possible NCAA violations. When Maryland defensive lineman
— who has tweeted more than 35,000 times — sent a rap lyric to his followers about "gettin money," he received an email from a compliance department official worried that Francis was being paid by a booster. Athletes could also run afoul of NCAA rules by offering an endorsement of any sort of product (whether or not they're getting paid), or by contacting recruits.
"I know a lot of the kids want [Twitter] back," Ambrose said. "But for me, this is about education before application. I don't have them run a play before telling them how to run the play."
Towson football players studying advertising, public relations, journalism or new media could be required by professors to use Twitter, though. Dr. Cynthia Cooper, the department chair of Mass Communication and Communication Studies at Towson said that, although she's not aware of the specifics of Ambrose's ban, students do need to use social media.
"We're absolutely pushing our students to use those tools," she said. "That's a huge part of what we're teaching to our students: that no matter what message they have, they've got to use multiple platforms and reach people where they want to be reached."
How local athletic departments deal with social media
Sports information director Roger McAfee said the school has no blanket policy on social media, and that its relatively small staff prevents constant monitoring of what athletes are saying. "I'll go on there and take a peak," he said, "but mostly, we just try to give them guidance."
Each team is free to set its own policy, but none has banned the use of any social media tool, according to director of athletic communications Ryan Eigenbrode. "Our rule is: If you wouldn't say it to your grandmother, don't say it on Twitter," he said. "In general, we want to educate, rather than restrict."
In addition to sitting through an educational session on the proper use of social media, students are issued guidelines and athletes have accounts monitored by a member of their team's staff. Football players, in particular, are active on Twitter and often shared reaction to controversial decisions by head coach Randy Edsall.
The school does not have a blanket policy for social media, sports information director Leonard Haynes IV said. Each coaching staff is free to make a decision on how to handle the use of Twitter and Facebook by students.
Navy doesn't have a special policy regarding social media use, and allows its players to use the services but encourages them not to "post anything they wouldn't want to see in The Baltimore Sun," said Scott Strasemeier, the associate athletic director for sports information. He follows the athletes on Twitter, but said there haven't been any problems so far. "We figure you're mature enough to come here and go on and serve in the military," he said. "You're mature enough to handle this."
Accounts are monitored at random after students go through an educational session early in the year. "We think our coaches are pretty savvy and that they keep tabs on that part of it," said Steve Levy, associate athletic director for communications. "We look when we have a spare moment, just to see what's being said."
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Lehigh suspended Spadola. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error