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Seven years ago, Clemson’s football program made national headlines with a new “no distraction” social media policy in which players voluntarily agreed to give up all social media usage at the start of the fall season in order to avoid unwanted distractions. If you’re trying to win a national football championship, after all, you don’t want your star players getting caught up in a Twitter feud with opponents or spending endless hours scrolling through their social media feeds. But this is 2020, and things are fundamentally different this year. The pandemic has raised the very real possibility that there might not be college football this year. In recognition of this fact, Clemson is relaxing its strict “no social media policy” after a vote by its players.
The case for a new social media policy
Simply put, college football conferences around the nation are shutting down their upcoming seasons before they even start, and Clemson’s football players wanted to make sure that they didn’t lose their season as well. Even if means only playing intra-conference games this year, Clemson wanted to play football this year. And the way to do that, the thinking goes, is by voting to free up player voices on social media. Instead of abandoning social media, the push is now on to embrace social media.
Clemson football players are posting their personal thoughts, reflections and messages on social media, with much of this content expressly designed to give them a voice in the national debate over college football this year. While Clemson’s football players have agreed not to use social media on game day, or on the day before game day, they are free to use social media every other day of the week. Since most college football games are scheduled for Saturday, that means that the social media blackout is only for Friday and Saturday. During the rest of the week, Clemson’s players are free to tweet, post or update their social media feeds.
What has changed in seven years?
So, if the season actually plays as planned, will all this additional social media usage prove to be a big distraction? The players say “no,” pointing to the fact that they grew up with social media, and that they are much better equipped to handle all the challenges and issues surrounding social media. To some degree, this is true. Most of the top high school recruits in the nation that make their way to Clemson already have huge followings before they even set foot on campus. They have honed their social media IQ over a period of several years, and are surprisingly savvy in how they go about their business. At a time when everyone carries around a mobile device, and when everyone is spending at least an hour per day on social media, doesn’t it make sense that Clemson’s players can handle all this social media usage?
But something else has changed as well – we’re living through a pandemic. If anything, social media usage is more important than ever before. For players who lived through a spring and summer quarantine, perhaps the only way they maintained social bonds with other players was through social media. For new recruits appearing on campus for the first time, social media is the way they connected with coaches and trainers. And for seniors (and rising juniors thinking of making a huge payday in the NFL), this is literally the last chance that they will have to showcase their skills on the playing field. So doesn’t it make sense that they would do everything in their power in order to preserve at least the prospect of playing a limited schedule this year?
As Clemson’s football players are quick to point out, they are not relaxing their social media policy this year for selfish reasons, but rather, for the “greater good of college football.” And that could lead to some real interesting changes. For example, QB Trevor Lawrence has suggested that he might be heading up a new players union on social media to give players a real voice in the game. If anything, that would publicly acknowledge what all of us have known privately for years: college football is a professional industry, with professional players. It’s time to drop the pretense that they are just amateur student-athletes.
Accountability on social media
If nothing else, the new social media policy at Clemson will teach players about accountability on social media. As coach Dabo Swinney has told his players, they will be held accountable for what they say now in the future, maybe for as long as twenty years. That’s especially true for the star players at Clemson, some of who might become NFL stars on Sunday. By learning to use social media to support a cause and a movement now, perhaps they will grow up faster than their peers and become more responsible in how they use social media.