Bill Cosby once hosted a short-lived television series in the late 1990s called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”
Steve Alford would have hated it.
In fact, Alford is so annoyed with the darned things kids say — at least with their fingers — that the New Mexico men’s basketball coach has taken the controversial step of banning his players from using Twitter.
WTH? R U kidding? Y would he do that?
Not kidding. So serious is the Lobos’ alpha male about keeping the web’s little blue bird away from his pack that he is actually threatening scholarship revocation for repeat offenders.
Two questions come to mind:
First, what controversial tweets have New Mexico players sent that would warrant a complete shutdown of one of the most popular and growing forms of communication in the world today?
And second, can he do that?
The first answer is easy; the second, not so much.
None of Alford’s players have found themselves in the white-hot spotlight of public scrutiny for tweeting something embarrassing or inappropriate, but at least one of his top recruits is well-known for his itchy trigger, er, Twitter finger.
Jarion Henry, a 6-9 forward from Dallas, has tweeted nearly 5,000 times since he opened his account in 2009, and his 140-character commentary has been anything but bland. Filled with expletives, Henry’s tweets might shock some followers, as he makes no secret of his desire to play “one and done” at the college level before heading to the NBA.
But should a single tweet-happy incoming freshman be enough of a reason for a roster-wide ban on social networking at New Mexico? And will other college coaches across the country, even in other sports, follow suit?
“Whatever I tweet is just a Freedom of Speech!” Henry tweeted last week, referencing the dreaded “c” word: censorship.
Does a ban on one form of social media (Alford is allowing Facebook accounts for his players) actually limit college student-athletes’ rights to free speech and expression?
Henry later backed off, tweeting that “Im good…when I get to UNM my Twitter acc. Will be deleted.”
Still, others want to debate whether or not coaches have the right to limit their players’ communication with fans, family, the press and the rest of the outside world.
Certainly, Alford can’t be blamed for being cautious, given the seemingly endless stories of athletes, mostly professional, who have embarrassed themselves and their teams by typing or texting things they’d never think of saying directly into a microphone.
Gone are the days when players’ exposure to the media was protected by the collegiate sports information director. In the past, the only access fans had to collegiate athletes’ opinions on anything came by way of media interviews scheduled and controlled by the SID. The system did allow for players to be heard, but always in a controlled environment, with savvy professionals shielding young college athletes from the potential traps laid by competitive media types.
The explosion of Twitter as a more direct form of communication has taken away the filter once provided by the SIDs, and has forced coaches such as Alford to make tough choices.
Is it better to simply establish guidelines that players should follow and trust that you’ve recruited the right kind of kid to your program — the kind who follows the rules? Or does a program-wide ban, which eliminates any and all potentially embarrassing random thoughts from making their way into cyberspace, make more sense?
It’s a tough call, but with the lure of that blank screen drawing players ever closer toward 140 characters of trouble (Henry called Twitter “a drug”), I’m siding with Alford. And the moment a high-profile player at another program pops off at the keyboard and causes his school a public-relations headache, other coaches will, too.
Bob Frantz is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.