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Twitter regulation stirs debate among teams, leagues, athletes

At the roundabout where Twitter, athletes and the media come together, the results are not always what you (or at least I) would expect.

Some results you would expect. Colleges and professional leagues grapple with the best way to regulate the use of Twitter. The NFL, for example, does not allow players to tweet 90 minutes before a game and not until post-game press conference are over. Two months ago, the NHL released its social media policy, which includes a similar ban to the NFL.

The NBA’s pre-game Twitter ban is only 45 minutes.  MLB has included a new social media policy in the collective bargaining agreement both sides agreed to earlier this month, but they have not released details about the policy.

At the college level, it’s up to each individual school to decide how and when players can use Twitter (there are no NCAA rules governing the use of Twitter before and during games).  Several football and basketball coaches in the past year have banned the use of Twitter, including Pittsburgh, New Mexico, Kansas, Mississippi State, and South Carolina.

Most of the bans in the past two years came as a reaction to players posting embarrassing, rude and, in at least one case, potential rules-violating activities.

South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier didn’t mince words when he explained the ban: “Well, we have some dumb, immature players that put crap on their Twitter, and we don’t need that. So the best thing to do is just ban it.”

I would have expected the media, which follows players and coaches for kernels of news, would blast efforts to ban college players from using Twitter.  Two of the most impassioned columns taking this stance were by Fox Sports’ Bill Reiter and CNBC’s Darren Rovell.

Reiter starts his column with this gem of a lead (take notes, aspiring sports writers): “Let’s skip the formalities here and kick this off with a 140-character-or-less, Twitter-friendly start: Really, Steve Spurrier? You’re banning Twitter? How about you join the 21st century instead? #GetAClue.”

Rovell takes the debate to a higher level, arguing the ban flies in the face of what colleges are supposed to be all about. The headline on his column – “Coaches Ban Of Twitter Proves College Sports Isn’t About Education” – makes a powerful statement.

What I didn’t expect is for other columnists to support the ban college players from Twitter movement. But that is what Yahoo! Sports’ Jason King and CBS Sports’ Gregg Doyel advocate.

“College athletes, however, have no business on Twitter,” King wrote. “There simply aren’t enough positives to outweigh the potential negatives that can surface when they’re allowed to post.”

Doyel argues that college players need to be saved from themselves; “Some of these guys, given a megaphone they’re not trained to use, need to be protected from themselves. It’s as simple as that.”

Doyel, never one to shy away from a discussion, explained why he disagrees with Rovell in his column: “A coach isn’t limiting his players’ personal growth, as people in my business like to think in our typical hand-wringing show of righteousness. Players have plenty of chances to grow as people in college. Classes, interview sessions. Public appearances.”

I called Doyel this week and asked him if he still feels that way (full disclosure: Doyel and I worked together at the Miami Herald in the 1990s). “Absolutely,” he said without hesitation.

It was a fair question. After all, he went on CNN two years ago, blasted the whole notion of Twitter and said, among other things, that Twitter was “one more example of us going down the tubes.”

Today, Doyel loves Twitter (“Twitter is a wonderful thing” he wrote in pro-ban column) and @greggdoyellcbs has almost 40,000 followers. His updates from State College during the firing of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were a masterful example of live reporting via Twitter.

But Doyel said if here were a coach, he would not let his players be on Twitter. “The potential upside is pretty small, but downside is pretty huge. If a kid makes a mistake, it’s a mistake that brands him for life.  We are giving them a mouthpiece they can’t use.”

Doyel said he would not extend the ban to professional athletes. “I have the exact opposite view on pros; they’re adults. If a pro athlete stubs his toe and bleeds, go ahead and I will watch.”

Not all coaches favor a Twitter ban. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski lets his players use Twitter and considers it part of the educational process. “One of the best lessons to learn is to have discretion, to remember it’s not just about you but who you’re representing,” Krzyzewski told the Atlanta Journal-Consitution in 2010. “I don’t know how you learn that unless you’re given an opportunity to do that.”

Doyel understands why Krzyzewski has that stance. “It’s easy for Coach K to feel that way because he recruits the cream of the crop – the brightest kids.”

Colleges continue to figure out the best way to deal with athletes and Twitter.  Some schools have hired a private company to monitor players’ accounts for inappropriate tweets.  Others have hired private companies, like the one led by former Notre Dame wide receiver Derrick Mays, to educate staff and athletes on the best ways to use Twitter.

The athlete-Twitter debate will continue as colleges and leagues try to determine the right balance. The pull of coaches wanting to control everything will battle the push of players wanting to express themselves.

The deciding factor may be recruiting: Twitter’s immediacy and ability to connect fans with athletes present a potentially powerful recruiting tool for colleges.

We will see how the Twitter debate plays out over the next year.

Ronnie Ramos is the managing director of digital communications for the NCAA. Before that, he spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, splitting his time between news and sports at five newspapers, including The Miami Herald and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter.

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