Tag Archives: Digital literacy; social media; college athletes; organizational communication

Score! How Collegiate Athletic Departments Are Training Student-Athletes About Effective Social Media Use

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE on March 27, 2017. Revision went under review in July 2017. Manuscript accepted for publication in September 2017. Final revisions completed on May 8, 2018. First published online on May 21, 2018.


Stephanie A. Smith, Assistant Professor of Public Relations, Department of Communication
Stephanie A. Smith, Virginia Tech
Brandi Watkins
Brandi A. Watkins, Virginia Tech






The primary responsibility of student-athletes is to represent their institution on the field, but because of social media, that role has evolved so that now student-athletes are considered representatives of the institution to a larger public. As such, athletic departments have implemented social media policies and/or training programs to guide student-athletes’ online activity. Drawing on digital literacy, this study investigates motivations behind the development of social media policies, how student athletes are trained about effective social media use, and how social media policies for student athletes are enforced from the perspective of the institution. In-depth interviews (N = 17) with representatives from collegiate athletic departments in the U.S. revealed social media policies were designed primarily to educate, rather than punish, and that training about the policy helps reduce social media violations. Theoretical and practical implications of this research are discussed.

Keywords: Digital literacy; social media; college athletes; organizational communication

Score! How Collegiate Athletic Departments Are Training Student-Athletes About Effective Social Media Use

DJ Gardner, Mississippi State University basketball player. Ray-Ray Armstrong, University of Miami football player. Ryan Spadola, Lehigh University football player. Marlon Williams, Texas Tech University football player. Each one of these aforementioned athletes suffered serious consequences due to their posts on social media, including loss of scholarships, suspension, and in some instances, even being kicked out of their university (Sarkisova & Parham, 2013). One momentary lapse in judgement, one statement of fewer than 140 characters, and the trajectory of college athletes can change entirely. Skills relating to the proper use of social media can be taught both within and outside of the classroom, and, had these students learned about effective social media use, their futures might not have been so negatively affected.

The primary responsibility of student-athletes is to represent their institution on the field, but, because of social media, that role has evolved to the extent that now college athletes are considered representatives of the institution to a larger public. This has presented a new set of challenges not only for the student-athlete but also for the athletic department and university administration. Student-athletes are expected to maintain standards set in place by their team, athletic department, the institution, and the governing body for student athletes (e.g., NCAA, NAIA). Failure to comply with these standards can result in negative consequences including game suspensions, dismissal from the team, removal of scholarships, and loss of eligibility (Sanderson, Snyder, Hull, & Gramlick, 2015b). It is imperative to teach all college students, not only college athletes, about the importance of social media etiquette to avoid serious consequences and also to help cultivate responsible, professional post-graduate citizens. Hence, many organizations, including athletic departments, create social media policies that students are required to follow.

Hopkins, Hopkins, and Whelton (2013) suggest student-athletes face more direct consequences (e.g., loss of eligibility, loss of scholarships or funding, and suspensions) for social media indiscretions than their professional counterparts. Likewise, Snyder (2014) cites concerns for athletic departments, including “privacy and liability concerns involving drugs and alcohol use, legal responsibility, freedom of speech, challenges in regulating posted information, and campus social disruption” (p. 134). Hopkins et al. (2013) suggest athletic departments can benefit from the development and enforcement of a social media policy including but not limited to reducing the likelihood of violations, enhancing the institution and athletic department’s brand, and reducing liability related to student-athlete social media activity. In addition to developing social media policies, athletic department officials must enforce such policies, which often requires extensive resources. Sanderson et al. (2015b) report that half of sports information directors at the university level have removed a social media post by a coach or student-athlete.

Researchers have examined social media policies developed by university athletic departments, as well as student-athletes’ perceptions of and attitudes towards such policies (see Sanderson, 2011; Sanderson & Browning, 2013; Sanderson, Browning, & Schmittel, 2015a; Sanderson et al., 2015b, Snyder, 2014). These studies provide insights into the rules and regulations outlined in the policies; however, to the authors’ knowledge, previous studies have not investigated the intent or motivations of athletic department officials for the creation and enforcement of social media. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to interview the people responsible for creating and implementing social media policies for college athletes to better understand how and why these policies are (not) developed, how the policies are taught to students, and how the policies are enforced. A better understanding of the organizational perspective related to the development of social media policy will provide much-needed insights for the development of future educational programs related to social media.


Student-Athletes and Social Media

It is undeniable that social media use is prevalent among college students, including student-athletes (Syme, 2014). In fact, DeShazo (2016), in a study for Fieldhouse Media, reports that 97% of the student-athletes surveyed used Facebook, with a large majority also using Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. The statistics of student-athlete social media use are a breakdown of the larger audience of social media, which includes usage by 80% of Americans (Greenwood, Perrin, & Duggan, 2016). College-age users of social media produce even higher engagement with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (Greenwood et al., 2016).

The greater usage of social media creates both benefits and consequences for users. Some potential benefits include increased relational closeness, relationship maintenance, networking, and personal branding. However, potential consequences include decreased privacy, threats to safety, and sometimes loss of employment, criminal charges, or both. Often college students report posting content they know can be viewed as controversial, but continue to do so following what they believe to be the common social norm regardless of its impact on their future (Miller, Parsons, & Lifer, 2010). Employers frequently use social media as a way to vet potential interns and employees (Peluchette & Karl, 2008; Sanderson et al., 2015b). Hopkins et al. (2013) report that 80% of college admissions officers consider a prospective student’s social media account when determining admission. College students have been suspended for posting inappropriate content on social media (Peluchette & Karl, 2008). Therefore, all students should be cognizant of the potential impact social media activity can have on their future, including potential job prospects.

Perhaps more so than their peers, student-athletes should be vigilant about how they present themselves on social media. Student-athletes, especially those who participate in high-profile sports, are likely to have thousands more followers than their peers, thus increasing the scrutiny of student-athlete social media activity (Sanderson et al.,2015a). Student-athletes frequently find themselves in the spotlight for their accomplishments, and the increased attention comes with the possibility of a student-athlete finding himself or herself at the center of a public relations crisis (Sanderson, 2011). As such, student-athletes are more likely to be susceptible to the negative effects of social media than other users (Mayer, 2012). One problematic social media post can result in severe implications for the student-athlete, including loss of eligibility and scholarships, removal from the team, and possible team sanctions from the NCAA (Browning & Sanderson, 2012; Sanderson & Browning, 2013; Sanderson et al., 2015b).

Social media provides many advantages for student-athletes, including displaying their personality off the field, connecting with fans, networking with prospective employers, developing a professional brand, and keeping in touch with family and friends from home (Browning & Sanderson, 2012; Sanderson et al., 2015b). Most athletes are provided with media training to help them handle interviews with members of the media, but the continued rise in social media use has led to the need for additional social media training and education (Sanderson, 2011). However, research on these policies has found that student-athletes are often provided with conflicting messages about ownership of social media content (Sanderson et al., 2015b). Student-athletes are considered to be representatives of the university and their respective athletic departments; thus, content they create, even on their personal social media accounts, also reflects on the athletic department and university at large. Therefore, student-athletes should expect to have their social media activity monitored by the athletic department, sometimes in addition to the university (Sanderson et al., 2015b).

Social Media Policy and Training in Collegiate Athletics

The use of social media has infiltrated every aspect of life in both professional and personal contexts. Thus, it is essential for organizations to have social media policies, including universities and athletic departments. The University of Kansas, for example, suspended the employment of a professor because of one post he made on Twitter. After that incident, the university created a social media policy for employees and informed them of the policy through a university memo (Hacker Daniels, 2015). Neill and Moody (2015) noted that social media policies for employees are useful, and Elefant (2011) recommended that policies cover issues such as social media use during and outside of work. However, studies lack an explanation of how employees are trained and informed about appropriate social media use. Vaast and Kaganer (2013) did note that guidelines included examples of what not to post and did not include examples of appropriate posts. This indicates that the creation of policies is primarily to mitigate risk, rather than to promote value (Vaast & Kaganer, 2013). In light of this, it is important to consider how future professionals (e.g., college students) are educated about proper social media use before entering the workforce.

In response to the increasing scrutiny of social media in professional settings,  measures have been taken to educate students about responsible uses of social media. In 2014, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a bill requiring all public schools in the state to educate students about social media literacy (Syme, 2014).  Relevant to student-athletes, university athletic departments have started developing and implementing social media policies and training programs for student-athletes (Sanderson, 2011). A survey conducted by the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) found that of the 450 institutions surveyed, 33% had a written social media policy for student-athletes (CoSIDA, 2013). Sanderson (2011) found 64% of Division I athletic departments with an online handbook for student-athletes have a social media policy.

Athletic departments and student-athletes alike must deal with mounting pressure from the NCAA to meet all compliance standards, including social media activity (Sanderson, 2011). The NCAA has monitored the social media activity of student-athletes from participating institutions for instances of misconduct (Mandel, 2010; Sanderson, 2011). A notable example of NCAA involvement with athletic departments and social media is the case of UNC-Chapel Hill. In 2011, the NCAA charged the institution with inadequately monitoring social media activity that revealed potential violations (Hopkins et al., 2013).

It is important to note that the NCAA has not yet implemented a formal policy related to social media use or monitoring. According to Truman, Cottingham, Bogle-Jubinville, and Lynch (2014), actual NCAA policies related to social media are more oriented toward recruiting violations rather than social media use by student-athletes. Hopkins et al. (2013) noted, “The NCAA has made it clear that member institutions must monitor social media to some extent in order to protect against possible NCAA sanctions” (p. 18). The authors go on to note that “NCAA member institutions have not been provided with clear rules regarding social media” (Hopkins et al., 2013, p. 18).

Research Examining Social Media Policy

Sanderson (2011) suggests many social media policies enacted by athletic departments are consistent with traditional media policies. For example, student-athletes are prohibited from making critical comments about the school, team, or coaches and are asked to refrain from creating social media content that can result in embarrassment for the athlete or the university. Similarly, Sanderson et al. (2015b) found that social media content produced by student-athletes must conform to “university lifestyle, expectations, community standards, NCAA rules and regulations, and federal and state law” (p. 62). Fuduric and Mandelli (2014) argue regulating social media content like traditional media is ineffective; rather, the focus should be on education and training, supplemented with social media policies. Still Sanderson and Browning (2013) assert that athletic departments appear to be more interested in monitoring social media activity rather than educating student-athletes.

Sanderson (2011) examined the social media policies in the student-athlete handbooks of 159 NCAA Division I schools and found that most of these policies consisted primarily of restrictions related to social media use. A follow-up study by Sanderson et al. (2015b) corroborated these findings by examining social media policies from schools participating in Division I, II, and III athletics. Sanderson (2011) concluded that while student-athletes were free to use social media, the policy enacted by their athletic department implied “they were duty bound to use it responsibly, given their visibility in the community and obligation to students, faculty, alumni, teammates, and other stakeholders” (p. 506). Sanderson et al. (2015a) interviewed student-athletes and found they perceived their school’s social media policy to be primarily about compliance and punishment for negative uses of social media.

Furthermore, studies have revealed that student-athletes perceived social media policies developed by the athletic department to be vague and to be lacking effective follow-up from the administration (Sanderson & Browning, 2013; Sanderson et al., 2015a). Sanderson and Browning (2013) attribute the vagueness and ambiguity in social media policy as an effort on the part of the athletic department to maintain a sense of control. By not clearly defining inappropriate social media content, the administrators have more leverage in determining when a violation of the policy has occurred (Sanderson & Browning, 2013).

Snyder (2014) surveyed student-athletes to assess their perceptions of athletic department social media policies. Results showed that student-athletes found social media monitoring by their coach, athletic department, athletic director, or team captain to be an acceptable policy. Student-athletes did not believe a ban on social media use or monitoring by anyone outside of the athletic department was acceptable. Mayer (2012) echoes this sentiment, arguing that “allowing students to roam free using Twitter is too lenient of a policy, but not allowing them to use Twitter at all with a complete ban is too strict” (p. 475). Instead, athletic departments should focus on educating student-athletes about appropriate uses of social media (Mayer, 2012; Sanderson et al., 2015; Snyder, 2014), which, as Browning and Sanderson (2012) suggest, will help student-athletes better understand what constitutes problematic social media activity and how to correct it. Some student-athletes report only learning of violations of social media policy after a violation has occurred (Sanderson & Browning, 2013). Further, Sanderson et al. (2015a) found student-athletes want social media education and training but often found existing training to be “forgettable” (p. 103).

In order to reconcile the apparent disconnect between the content of the policy and student perception of the policies, it is necessary to add a third perspective – that of the policymaker. As such, this study is among the first to investigate the intent and motivations behind the development of social media policies for student-athletes from the organizational perspective. The organizational perspective is an important viewpoint to examine because organizations have different motives, strategies, and goals than individuals. Also, because coaches, athletic directors, and compliance officers are not traditional or trained educators, their creation and enforcement of social media policies may vary in effectiveness with their target audience of student athletes. This is an important area of study because proper training can help student-athletes develop a social media presence, respond to negative comments on social media, abide by NCAA rules, and avoid possible public relations crises for themselves, their teams, and their institutions. Therefore, the following research question is posed:

RQ 1: What is the guiding philosophy of athletic departments behind developing social media training programs for student-athletes?

Media and Digital Literacy

Media literacy is commonly defined as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create messages across a variety of contexts” (Livingstone, 2004, p. 3). The addition of Internet and digital communications require users to have a set of skills beyond those required of traditional definitions of media literacy (Eshet-Alkali & Amichai-Hamburger, 2004). This has led to the development of other skill-based literacies, including digital literacy. As such, digital literacy is defined as “an ability to read and understand hypertextual and multimedia texts” (Bawden, 2001, p. 24). Martin (2006) provides a more elaborate definition:

Digital literacy is the awareness, attitude, and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital tools and facilities to identify, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, analyze and synthesize digital resources, construct new knowledge, create media expressions, and communicate with others, in the context of specific life situations, in order to enable constructive social action; and to reflect upon this process. (p. 19, also cited in Koltay, 2011, p. 216)

According to Ng (2012), digital literacy builds on existing literacies; thus, a digitally literate person should be able to adapt to new technologies quickly and efficiently.

Digital literacy expands on media literacy by going beyond just examining text-based messages to include sounds and images (Bawden, 2001). Eshet-Alkali and Amichai-Hamburger (2004) suggest digital literacy should include five digital skills: photo-visual skills, reproduction skills, branching skills, information skills, and socio-emotional skills. Scholars have purported media and digital literacy as necessary tools for participating in civic life. According to Kellner and Share (2005), media literacy education empowers individuals to better understand and intelligently use media. Hobbs (2011) suggests media and digital literacy allows audiences, especially younger audiences, to seek out information on relevant issues, to evaluate the quality of information available, and to engage in dialogue with others to form coalitions” (Hobbs, 2011, p. 421-422). In a meta-analysis of research on media literacy interventions, Jeong, Cho, and Hwang (2012) found that these interventions were generally considered to be effective in achieving outcomes.

Media and Digital Literacy Education

According to Kellner and Share (2005), literacy is inextricably linked with education, and it is through literacy that people learn to communicate effectively within a system. Ashley (2015) found that 83% of instructors who teach introductory mass communication classes include media literacy as a component of the course. Schmidt (2013) reported that on average, secondary education faculty teach media literacy competencies in their courses, although the extent to which this is achieved varies widely. Furthermore, Schmidt (2015) found that students benefited from media-focused lessons, even if that focus is a marginal aspect of the class. Traditionally, the concept of media literacy was focused primarily on developing interventions and education programs related to traditional media, but as technology evolves, so should the application of media literacy interventions. Kellner and Share (2005) argued that literacy must be extended to include new and digital media. Therefore, given the prevalence of social media, especially among younger audiences, the importance of teaching social media literacy is paramount.

College students live and work in an integrated media environment, which includes print, audiovisual, and digital media (Livingstone, 2004); therefore, media and digital literacy are an important component of the overall educational experience of students (Rodriguez, 2011). The growing importance and prevalence of media and communication skills means that media literacy training is essential for college graduates (Schmidt, 2015). According to Rodriguez (2011), social media can empower students to take more control over their learning experience. Additionally, scholars have suggested that educational institutions have a responsibility to prepare students for life after graduation (Duffy & Burns, 2006; Rodriguez, 2011). Given the unique position of student-athletes within the university, the athletic department is best positioned to help student-athletes navigate the new terrain of social media use.

Research has indicated that a more balanced, comprehensive approach to social media training would be more effective than the more restrictive policies (Sanderson et al., 2015a). Browning and Sanderson (2012) reiterated the need to help students understand why certain social media activities are considered inappropriate and unacceptable. Relevant to this study, scholars have called on athletic departments to incorporate positive uses of social media into their media training for student-athletes (Sanderson, 2011; Sanderson et al., 2015b; Snyder, 2014). To that end, this study not only looks at the intent behind the development of a social media policy, but also considers how students are educated about social media use and how the policies are enforced. The following research questions are proposed:

RQ 2: How is social media training taught among college athletes?

RQ 3: To what extent is the athletic department and/or university social media policy enforced among college athletes?


Recruitment and Sample

After securing approval from the university IRB, recruitment of potential interviewees began. In order to recruit a purposive sample with maximum variation, a preliminary list of compliance officers (CO) and athletic directors (AD) at various NCAA DI, DII, and DIII schools was created and each person was contacted via email. For this first round of recruitment, 127 people were contacted, and recruitment only continued with those who responded to the email and expressed their interest in participating. Then, a snowball sampling method was used to contact additional participants. To be eligible for the study, participants had to be currently employed with a college athletic department and have access to, and an understanding of, the school/athletic department’s social media policy for student-athletes. Variation within the sample was maximized because participants had a range of experience and tenure levels and worked in different NCAA division schools. The total sample size for this study was 17. A further descriptive breakdown can be found in Table 1.

Table 1

Demographic Characteristics

N %
Male 12 71
Female 5 29
I 9 53
II 5 29
III 3 18
Respondent’s Job Titles
Athletic Directors/Compliance Officers 14 82
Marketing Director of Athletic Communication 1 6
Director of Digital Strategy for Athletics 1 6
Director of Athletic Communications 1 6



Upon recruiting the sample of various compliance officers and athletic directors, semi-structured interviews were conducted with each participant. A structured interview guide (see Appendix A) was used to ensure that every participant was asked the same questions and had a similar interview experience to the other participants (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011). The interviews were conducted over the phone and began with a review of the confidentiality of the study and a verbal agreement from the participant to continue, understanding that they could choose to stop the interview at any time or decline to answer any question asked. Each interview was scheduled at a time most convenient for the participant to reduce distractions and enhance the quality of the interview responses (Rubin & Rubin, 2011). Each interview was completed in about 30 minutes, with a mean interview time of 24 minutes. The interviews were recorded for accuracy and to create verbatim transcripts for data analysis. 


Throughout the interviewing process and data analysis, many steps to ensure the trustworthiness of the data were taken, and an overview of those steps can be found in Table 2. Data analysis occurred in four stages. First, an electronic, verbatim transcript of each interview was made. A verbatim copy of the interviews provided a sufficient level of detail required for analysis, such as preserving exact language, noting pauses, and capturing how things were said (Bailey, 2008). The transcripts were independently reviewed by both researchers to increase familiarity with the data (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011). After reviewing the transcripts, stage two of data analysis, open coding, started. Open coding occurs when “the researchers examine the text . . . for salient categories of information supported by the text” (Creswell, 2007, p. 160). The unit of analysis for this study was a complete thought within the interview, where a clear beginning, middle, and end can be identified. During open coding, labels were assigned to the data, but the data were not categorized. Categorization began in the third phase, axial coding.

During the axial coding stage, data were explored through grouping, deleting, editing, and merging open codes. This stage helped to identify themes present in the data to answer the research questions. Owen’s (1984) guidelines of recurrence, repetition, and forcefulness were also used to help determine themes. Following the recommendations of Strauss and Corbin (1998), axial coding continued until theoretical saturation occurred and no new themes emerged consistently from the text. Thus, when observable patterns and sub-themes did not result in any new categories, the axial coding stage concluded and the final stage of interpretation began. The interpretation stage is where data are transformed to create new meaning (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996). Media literacy theory was used in this stage to help theoretically interpret the data to further explain patterns.

Table 2

Trustworthiness Criteria

Trustworthiness Criteria Description of Criteria Methods to Meet Criteria
Credibility Truth value in interpretations are established Implementation of previously used methods (interviews)
Transferability Interpretations are able to be transferred to other similar cases Thick description, and linking findings to previous research and theory (Digital and Media Literacy)
Confirmability Findings are observable to others outside of the locale Detailed data management and recording, unit of analysis checks
Dependability Consistency between researcher/researched Audit trail and participant confidentiality protection, member checks of data

Lincoln, Y., & Guba, E. (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.


Media literacy and the components of digital literacy were used to help interpret the findings. Our findings indicate that awareness can be used to understand the guiding philosophy behind developing social media policies for student-athletes (RQ 1); that social media training helps create a positive attitude toward social media use by student-athletes (RQ 2); and that the enforcement of the social media policies, particularly when followed by training, gives student-athletes the ability to use social media responsibly (RQ 3).

Social Media Awareness as a Guiding Philosophy for Social Media Policy Creation

Throughout the study and across all interviews, participants mentioned that social media use has become a part of life and made note of the prevalence of social media and the multiple platforms available. It is for this reason that many institutions created social media policies. A Division I participant said:

It became clear that much more time was being spent by student-athletes and coaches and staff on social platforms. It’s become a normal way of conversing; it’s just part of the general way that people communicate now. It’s no longer an accessory, and so we said that before we have a problem, let’s make sure that everyone is on the same page with how we want to handle these platforms and what our expectations are for student-athletes.

A handful of other institutions said that in addition to the prevalence of social media, seeing student-athletes get in trouble because of social media caused them to put together a policy. A Division II athletic director explained: “We had seen a couple of things just in the media, and I know there was one thing that happened out at [institution withheld] with a football player that kind of made us think we should get ahead of this.”

Another major reason noted for creating and enacting a social media policy for student-athletes was to reduce social media violations. Several athletic directors discussed how having a policy to refer back to, which clearly outlines what constitutes inappropriate online behavior, can help reduce the actual number of violations and the potential for future violations. A Division III athletic director stated: “We outline what is and is not acceptable and make them sign a contract stating they understand. We’ve noticed this helps the students realize why certain things are not allowed, and we have very few violations.” Collectively, the prevalence of social media use among college student-athletes creates awareness among athletic leadership, which guides the creation of social media policies.

Social Media Training as Attitude Cultivation for Student-Athletes

Although some participants did not have a formal social media policy (n = 4), every participating athletic department engaged in some type of social media training. Social media trainings ranged from team-level training to general training with all student-athletes at the beginning of the school year. Regardless of the format, every participating institution discussed how they included examples of positive and negative social media examples in their training sessions. A Division I marketing director for athletics said:

Our athletics director brings everyone together at the beginning of the year for a convocation. He does a slideshow and . . . if there are any student-athletes who put something that’s inappropriate on social media [from the previous year], he will put that up on the video board and showcase it in front of all of their peers–[around] 500 student-athletes. [This is] kind of the threat that if you do make a poor decision it will be featured next year. We also show student-athletes who are doing a great job using social media, too.

Within every interview, participants stressed how their trainings were meant to educate student-athletes on appropriate social media use. A Division III athletic director stated:

We want them to be engaged on social media, we want them to understand how to use it properly and use it. I always tell our kids, “This is your brand. This is the one thing you can control.” So we do have a policy in place.

Additionally, each athletic department approached their social media policies with a proactive attitude to demonstrate to the student-athletes that they were trying to provide education about more positive, responsible social media usage. A Division I institution participant explained:

We bring in a personal branding coach every year, and she is a professional not affiliated with our school or our department. She just explains how important using social media can be for your future. We also do other trainings, too, like especially for seniors looking for jobs.

This demonstrates that the social media trainings and approaches being used across athletic divisions help cultivate a practical and appropriate attitude toward social media use among student-athletes.

Social Media Enforcement to Enhance Social Media Abilities of Student-Athletes

Every participating athletic department monitors the social media activities of its student-athletes slightly differently. However, the enforcement of the policy when a violation occurs is generally the same across participating departments. As established during social media training sessions, no one wanted to police the social media use of student-athletes. All participants felt confident that, for the most part, their student-athletes were capable of using social media responsibly, in part due to the training provided. A Division I athletic director explained:

Our policy revolves around education and not around a bullet-pointed document where there are steps that you have to follow . . . . We are lucky that we have student-athletes that for the most part are law-abiding citizens. They’re smart. They understand the realm in which they are living in that anything on the internet is public.

This demonstrates that athletic departments believe in the ability of their student-athletes to make good choices online.

Participants also noted how they relied upon their student-athletes to help execute their branding and promote their teams and institutions. A Division II compliance officer explained: “We know how many followers our student-athletes have, and we want them to promote our programs. We will tag them when they do cool things, and we expect the same in return.” Using a strategy like this recognizes the power and abilities of student-athletes online. This simultaneously makes it easier to periodically check-in on student-athletes’ social media usage. It also makes it easier to see if student-athletes have unexpectedly changed their social media usage, which could be a red flag. A Division III athletic director stated:

I keep tabs on them by putting things out there I know they will like and respond to. But some of our upperclassmen will change their profile name. They think they’ve fooled me by changing their name, but I can still click on their profile and see who it is, so I keep tabs.

Although athletic departments take steps to increase the social media abilities of their student-athletes, violations still occur. When a violation occurs, each participating institution explained that their first step would be a conversation with the student-athlete to figure out what happened and explain why their behavior was inappropriate. Then, the violation would either be over, or escalated to their coach, the school’s administration, or the NCAA, depending on the situation. The main priority is to first let students know why their behavior online was inappropriate and then to make sure they understand the violation and will not make that choice again. None of the participants had clear sanctions outlined within their policies, so each violation is handled on a case-by-case basis. This helps illustrate that the social media policies for student-athletes are designed to educate, rather than punish. Taking an educational approach to overcoming violations also increases the abilities of student-athletes to make better choices moving forward.


In sum, findings from the interviews indicated that, through the development of a social media policy or training program, awareness for the importance of being digitally literate is emphasized for students. Additionally, the educational focus and objective of many of these policies and training programs is to help cultivate a positive attitude toward the use of social media for student-athletes. Finally, through enforcement of the policy and continued education, students master the ability to use social media responsibly and effectively. Each of these components – awareness, attitude, and ability – is critical to developing digital literacy competency and has great implications for public relations educators. The findings from this study help inform classroom education about social media strategy.

According to our interviews, several participants cited the ubiquity of social media as the impetus for the development of social media policies and training for student-athletes. They also considered the implementation of a policy or training program as a preventative measure against future problems that could occur as a result of improper social media use by student-athletes. Furthermore, participants described the policies as being primarily focused on education rather than policing students’ social media accounts for violations. This demonstrates that although social media policies may be purposefully vague, it is not with the intention of being able to punish for anything found on social media, as previously indicated (Sanderson & Browning, 2013; Sanderson et. al., 2015a). Instead, these findings explain that the vagueness within the policies allows them to be flexible to a variety of platforms and instill responsible decision-making among the students without stifling social media use.

The actual policies and training formats varied from institution to institution, but a consistent theme among participants was that the social media policies and training programs were developed with the intent to educate student-athletes about responsible social media use, rather than to reprimand students for negative or inappropriate social media usage (Sanderson et. al., 2015a). This aligns with calls from previous researchers who suggest social media policies should focus on educating students about the positive and negative consequences of using social media (Mayer, 2012; Sanderson, 2011; Sanderson, 2015b; Snyder, 2014). Media and digital literacy scholars echo this sentiment as they frequently cite education as a way to develop critical-thinking skills (Hobbs, 2011; Kellner & Share, 2005). Education, rather than restrictive policies, is more likely to be effective in terms of helping student-athletes to identify problematic social media habits and how to correct those habits (Browning & Sanderson, 2012; Sanderson & Browning, 2013).

Our findings highlight the fact that the monitoring of student-athlete social media activity is unpredictable and sporadic. This further illustrates that institutions want to enact and train students with the intent of educating them about effective social media use, rather than penalize them after the fact, when a student, team, or institution’s reputation can simultaneously suffer.

Social media policies and training sessions that are restrictive in nature, meaning they focus more on what is not permitted rather than what is permitted, are considered by participants as less effective than educational-based policies. Furthermore, students are not as receptive to these programs (Snyder, 2014). Sanderson (2015a) and Snyder (2014) found that student-athletes are generally favorable to the idea of social media training and to an extent even monitoring by the athletic department officials or coaches. The training that was described within the findings of this study demonstrates that the call to action about showing positive and negative examples of social media use has been answered and implemented (Sanderson, 2011; Sanderson et al., 2015b; Snyder, 2014). This helps to explain why many of our interviewees noted positive feedback from student-athletes related to the training programs.

Several participants indicated that having student-athletes on social media was beneficial for the athletic department’s brand in that they could further act as brand ambassadors for the team and the university. Sanderson (2015a) reiterates this point by suggesting that training programs should help student-athletes create social media content that furthers their personal brand. Similarly, Snyder (2014) suggests that the athletic department should integrate the student’s personal brand with the athletic department brand. Participants in this study noted that they would often share relevant information from the student athlete’s account or include the student athlete’s social media handle in athletic department content as a way to reward positive social media behavior. This practice, in turn, also allows the athletic department to hold students accountable to content posted on social media. Of importance to note, this process was typically used in tandem with training on personal branding via social media channels.

Based on the findings of this study, it can be concluded that athletic departments generally view the role of the social media policy to be an educational tool that guides student-athletes to use social media in a positive and responsible manner. Through teaching proper use of social media, athletic departments are encouraging student-athletes to take control of their presence on social media. Empowering digital media users to create their own messages is an essential tenet of digital literacy (Jeong et al., 2012) and provides students with more control over their learning experience (Rodriguez, 2011). The education-based model of social media training and policy development can be replicated across a variety of organizational contexts.

Practical Implications and Suggestions

Related to digital literacy, the approach to social media policy and training by the athletic department representatives interviewed in this study focused more on creating a practical and positive attitude toward social media use. The proactive implementation of policies and training indicates recognition of the importance and commitment to educating student-athletes on positive social media approaches. These findings are especially important to educators in the classroom. Educators can begin the conversation about responsible and effective social media use with their students to underscore the implementation of broader social media policies, like those set forth by universities, and to prepare students for future employment where a social media policy will likely be enforced. Focusing on the educational value that a social media policy or training session can have for its members can provide mutually beneficial relationships for the organization and its members. The findings of this study also suggest that there are fewer social media violations by student-athletes when they are already informed about effective social media use from their classroom experience.

Media and digital literacy includes empowering the audience to create its own messages (Jeong et al., 2012), which is an essential feature of social media and Web 2.0 technologies. Hobbs (2011) goes on to add, “generated by the rise of social media and other digital tools that enable anyone to be an author, there is an explosion of interest in media literacy as a tool for empowerment” (p. 422). Athletic departments are empowering student-athletes to control their online presence through enacting policies that encourage, rather than discourage, social media use in a way that is mutually beneficial. In the classroom, this conversation can be centered around the power of social media for personal branding. Educators should consider discussing the positive impact that social media can have on creating opportunities for students and how students can use social media to control their online presence.

Media and digital literacy training provides users with a foundation for more effective media use. For example, Martens (2010) explains that by having the ability to access and analyze media messages, one can better identify programming that meets their needs. Likewise, this knowledge can help a person identify potential risks inherent in media messages and identify useful media (Schmidt, 2015). This skill is especially important for young social media users who are often inundated with messages and need guidance to better understand how to interpret such messages, an area where more attention could be paid in the classroom. Furthermore, student-athletes can use their knowledge and social media training to enhance future job opportunities beyond collegiate athletics. Expanding their professional network is an often-cited benefit of using social media for all students, including student-athletes (Sanderson, 2011).

Teaching Implications

The findings from this study focus on three main areas within media and digital literacy: awareness, attitude, and ability. These findings help provide suggestions for social media educators. Firstly, like the athletic departments noted, social media is a part of every student’s life. Therefore, acceptance of the prevalence of social media, as well as education about appropriate usage, is vital for success. Educators should not ignore social media in their classrooms, rather, like the participants of this study have done, they should use social media as an opportunity to advance conversations and education. For example, discussing how to use social media as a networking-building platform can be invaluable to students as they prepare to search for jobs or internships. PR educators can encourage students to make LinkedIn profiles, help students brainstorm potential connections, and discuss how social media can be used to break the ice with potential employers. Rather than tell students to lock down their social media and use all the privacy settings available to them, education should be focused around creating a professional and responsible personal brand.

Secondly, through education, positive and responsible attitudes about social media use can be cultivated. In classrooms, showing examples of positive and negative social media posts can be useful, as well as educating students on how social media can be used for personal branding. However, while some athletic departments in this study noted showing negative examples of current athletes, this should be avoided in the classroom. What could be stronger, is showing examples of students who created national headlines for their positive and negative social media actions. Also, examples abound from employees who have lost their jobs due to poor social media use (e.g., Applebee’s, Uber). These examples can be effective in the classroom to demonstrate responsible social media use.

The difference between athletic departments using humiliation tactics and PR educators using humiliation tactics to teach effective social media use is important to understand. Firstly, athletic departments usually operate with a social media contract between the department and the student-athlete. Within the contract, there is verbiage noting that anything student athletes post is also related to the institutional athletic brand. In the classroom, contracts like this do not exist. Secondly, student athletes understand through contracts and training that the athletic department and university at-large could be monitoring their social media profiles at any time. This understanding does not exist between educators and students, and social media monitoring by instructors could be seen as intrusive and inappropriate. Finally, while the humiliation strategy may work in a tight-knit setting such as among student-athletes, it is inappropriate for the classroom where grades and evaluation are at stake. The role of athletic departments and coaches is not the same as the role professors play in the lives of students. Instead, educators should rely on mainstream examples in the classroom and follow up with tips for students to clean up and avoid social media embarrassments.

Finally, educators should trust the abilities of their students to responsibly use social media and educate them accordingly. Instead of telling students what not to do online, explain that social media gives them the potential to creatively express themselves and create awareness about their unique skills and voices. It is paramount that educators continue to integrate lessons about social media use into their teaching to help establish a bridge between study and practice. Although the findings of this study are centralized to college athletics, the implications across organizations are detectable. Organizations are looking to leverage the classroom education of their employees to create better ambassadors, as exemplified through the findings of this study. Therefore, it is necessary that PR educators continue to teach responsible and effective social media use in the classroom.

Limitations and Future Research

As with all studies, this one is not without limitations. One limitation is the fact that we did not actually analyze the policies. Instead, we relied upon our participants to inform us of their policies, which may not have provided an entirely comprehensive understanding of the policies. However, given the fact that we were focused on the reasoning for creating the policy, the training surrounding the policy, and the policy enforcement, this limitation is also an opportunity for future research. Another limitation is that we did not speak to individual team coaches who, based on the accounts of our participants, do have the right to enforce a stricter social media policy within their own teams and during the season. This provides another opportunity for future research.

The findings of this study provide insight into the administrative decision-making related to the development of social media policy. There is undoubtedly a power dynamic at play between institutions and athletes, which provides an opportunity for future research to understand how the policy comes together, who is involved in the creation, the approval process, and how much influence a governing association has in policy creation. It is possible that these policies also serve the interests of the schools as much as or perhaps more than each athlete.

Critics could also argue that allowing and encouraging athletes to use social media could lead to exploitation, which could create ethical concerns. For example, a future study examining the ethics behind using positive and negative examples of responsible social media use within trainings could have valuable insight and implications for PR education. On the other hand, individual athletes may find greater personal benefit from social media than the institution. Previous research in this area does reveal that there is apparent disconnect between the intent of the athletic department and the perception of the policy by the student-athletes. For example, Sanderson (2015a) interviewed student-athletes and found that students tended to find the social media policy restrictive and did not find educational value in the policy; whereas, results of this study indicated that athletic departments work to emphasize the educational value of such programs. Reconciling these differences is beyond the scope of the current study but should be investigated in future studies to determine the effectiveness of such programs.


Findings from this study provide insight into the organization’s perspective when it comes to developing, implementing, and enforcing social media policies for student-athletes. This study presents a perspective of an increasingly important issue that has not yet been examined through research. Representatives from athletic departments reported developing policies that are designed to be more educational than punitive. Through these policies, athletic departments aim to empower student-athletes to take control of their social media presence to prepare them for a future beyond athletics.


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Interview Guide

How long have you been in your position?
Where were you working previously?
Tell me about your sports management background.
Tell me about your social media policy for collegiate athletes.
When was it developed?
Why was it developed?
Who developed it?
Has it been revised? Why?
How do you inform and educate your college athletes on the policy?
How do you establish whether or not the students have read and understand the policy?
How is the policy enforced?
What happens if the policy is violated?
Are there variations in the policy or the enforcement based on sport? If so, explain.
What type of student feedback have you gotten about your policy?
How much input do the students have in crafting and/or enforcing the policy?
What do you think are the strengths of your policy?
How do you encourage positive social media use among student-athletes (i.e. brand building and networking)?
What about weaknesses or areas for improvement/clarification?
How do you monitor trends in social media and subsequently keep your policy current?
To what extent do you monitor the social media activities at other schools?