Subscribe for 33¢ / day

Initial signing day for college football is around the corner and student athletes, as well as potential recruits, need to realize the good and bad of their Twitter and social media accounts, a recent study shows.

Researchers at Baylor University in Waco, Texas and Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. published a study in International Journal of Sport Communication in December that explored what student athletes gain by using Twitter and the way they respond to harsh criticisms on Twitter.

“Twitter is essentially a press conference that never ends,” said Blair Browning, co-author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Baylor University. “In other words, the microphone is always in front of them and they don’t necessarily think of it that way.”

Browning and Jimmy Sanderson, Browning’s co-author and assistant professor of communication studies at Clemson University, conducted in-depth interviews with 20 student athletes from the same university- 10 football players, five men’s basketball players, three women’s basketball and two baseball players. Due to confidentiality agreements, researchers could not release the name of the school of the study subjects attended.

Researchers found that student athletes use Twitter primarily for maintaining contact, communicating with followers and reading information, and that student athletes are constantly spending time checking what Twitter users are saying about them.

“Some students even had trouble quantifying how many times they would check Twitter a day,” Browning said. “They’re like, ‘I don’t know, all the time,’ and when it’s an icon on their phone, it’s the place they have their connection and their relationship to go through.”

Sanderson added that many athletes check Twitter immediately after a game to see what fans and foes had to say, such as Michigan State basketball player Derrick Nix.

Athletes typically find negative criticisms on Twitter, but athletes vary in how they respond. Whereas some athletes may directly engage with a source of negativity, Browning said some athletes will use “subtweeting-” a method where students will respond to the negative topic directed toward them without directly responding to the source.

“Essentially when they would take some criticisms, what they would do is rather than escalate it through a Twitter-war by responding directly to that person, they might say ‘one of my followers said,’ and actually refute it,” Browning said. “We were kind of impressed with this because it is a way of getting the message out and receiving whatever criticism has been cast at them without directly responding.”

The researchers said that subtweeting was common among older athletes, while some athletes trust their fans to fight the hate.

“The fans will go and attack the haters,” Sanderson said. “It is kind of this convenient outsourcing and that way they (athletes) don’t really get in trouble.”

When student-athletes get themselves into trouble, universities step in

Universities such as Notre Dame, Northwestern and Michigan encourage student athletes to use Twitter, but instruct athletes on conducting themselves responsibly.

John Heisler, athletic department spokesman for Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., said that the university, similar to others, does not have specific policies but offer guidelines and ways to avoid trouble.

“At some point this goes beyond personal. It represents Notre Dame athletics,” Heisler said. “The minute you become connected to Notre Dame, everything you say or do will be covered by media in any way, shape or form. There’s not much of a private life any more.”

Recently, 2012 Heisman trophy winner and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel posted a controversial picture on his social media accounts. Manziel removed the picture from his accounts, but the photo drew attention from the NCAA.

“We don’t monitor everyone’s social media site,” said Cameron Schuh, spokesperson for the NCAA. “But (we) can use it as a source and enforcement staff can use that information for investigations.”

The NCAA’s current manual does not lay out specific guidelines or requirements for social media as it does for newspapers or broadcasting outlets. Schuh said it is up to individual universities to monitor their athletes.

Dave Ablauf, associate athletic director of public relations at University of Michigan, said student athletes signed a document prior to 2012 fall athletic season that explains do’s and don’ts on how to properly conduct themselves on social media.

“We know it is part of today’s society,” Ablauf said. “We have no problem with them using Twitter and Facebook. Our big thing is about education. We’ve done enough to communicate how to conduct themselves in a social (conduct).”

Universities look at possible recruits too

High school athletes intending to continue their sport in college need to monitor their Twitter and Facebook presence. Doug Meffley, director of digital and social communications for Northwestern University’s athletic department, says its coaches evaluate recruits’ social media as part of its recruitment process.

“Every recruit is evaluated by character,” Meffley said. “The student athlete we recruit must fit our culture.”

Meffley said that Northwestern’s coaching staff uses Facebook and Twitter as a recruiting tool, in addition to email and phone calls. As long as the staff communicates privately through each medium’s messaging features, it is not an NCAA violation.

However, what current eligible players tweet about recruits can raise flags. Heisler recalled an instance last year at Notre Dame when a current football player tweeted about a possible recruit from his alma mater visiting the university campus.

According to NCAA manual, any type of publicity from any university representative about a recruit prior to a letter of intent is prohibited. The athletic department contacted the player and had his comment removed from Twitter.

“I think that is the biggest thing we make [athletes] understand,” Heisler said. “These things are public and can be passed along.”

Initial signing day for college football is Feb. 6. Recruits will commit to a university and can announce their commitment through multiple platforms, including Twitter.

“It’s going to be a huge thing on signing day," Sanderson said. "We might as well consider it a part of signing day."