According to an NCAA spokesman, the governing body of intercollegiate athletics has no plans to pen an official policy that would punish student-athletes for the misuse of social media sites, like Twitter, anytime in the near future.
However, the NCAA will act if an individual goes over the line, especially in the course of a championship event.
Such was the case earlier this month when the Division I Football Championship Committee suspended Lehigh wide receiver Ryan Spadola for re-tweeting a message that contained a racial slur. The tweet went out on Dec. 2, one day before Lehigh's playoff win at Towson.
Twitter is a popular social networking site in which messages no longer than 140 characters are "tweeted" to "followers."
The Football Championship Committee, which University of Montana athletic director Jim O'Day chairs, publicly reprimanded Spadola in addition to doling out a one-game suspension. The committee didn't find out about the tweet until after the Lehigh-Towson game, so Spadola sat out the following week's quarterfinal game at North Dakota State on Dec. 10.
"The football committee was very disappointed with the unsportsmanlike action taken by the student-athlete," O'Day said in a statement issued Dec. 8. "This was a very unfortunate incident, but racially insensitive characterizations are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. The offensive language of this nature by Mr. Spadola, whether intentional or not, was unsportsmanlike and discredited the championship overall."
Spadola, a junior who was recently named to multiple All-America teams, certainly isn't the first - or the latest - sports figure to be caught up in a tweet-roversy, but he is the first football player at the Football Championship Subdivision level to be suspended by the NCAA for such actions.
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Until this fall, the NCAA had few - if any - Twitter infractions to deal with, spokesman Cameron Schuh said.
"I can't say there will be a rule or a policy put in place about the use of social media in championships, (but) definitely, this has since caused a lot of conversation to take place throughout the office," Schuh said in a phone interview from the NCAA's headquarters in Indianapolis. "With the type of speech that was used ... if we come across this again - and it doesn't even have to be in social media - what are the parameters we use? Was it an individual, a coach, a program? Was it used in a derogatory way? Was it within the confines of the championship?
"So, I wouldn't say this is specific to social media, but we're definitely looking at it."
Schuh said the NCAA made the unprecedented decision to suspend Spadola based on several major points, which differ greatly from a non-athlete tweeting the same language. Spadola's tweet:
- occurred within the timeframe of the championship (The FCS playoffs run Nov. 26 through Jan. 7).
- was directed at a fellow NCAA student-athlete, and
- was not used in a colloquial manner.
"It wasn't as simple as the forwarding of the message," Schuh said. "It's that it was typed out (by Spadola) as a response to a tweet he received. When the committee was made aware of what was said, within the time frame of the championships, the content of that comment and because it was directed at another student-athlete, with whom they were about to compete against, the committee took action."
Asked if similar situations will be judged case-by-case in the future, Schuh was non-committal.
"The monitoring of social media, that's not really something we do, or even have the time or manpower to do," he said. "The monitoring of social media is done on an institutional basis, on each campus. Some coaches say do whatever you want and some say don't use it. That's a school or a conference's decision. They are the ones charged with overseeing those outlets."
Schuh said it's difficult for the NCAA to monitor student-athletes during the regular season, considering most of his organization's oversight comes in the postseason.
"Schools, institutions and conferences have their own guidelines in place for social media," Schuh said. "This is the first time an invidual in a championship setting was witheld from a game... but that doesn't mean this is the first time it's ever happened."
Spadola didn't author the original tweet, which he received from a high school teammate, but his re-tweet - the passing of someone else's tweet to your followers - certainly caught the eye of the committee. It referenced members of the Towson football team.
Spadola did not respond to interview requests from the Missoulian earlier this week.
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Without Spadola in the lineup, the Mountain Hawks went on to lose 24-0 to North Dakota State. The Bison advanced to the semifinals, where they beat Georgia Southern. North Dakota State now faces Sam Houston State in the FCS title game Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.
To some fans the punishment seemed a bit harsh. O'Day was one of those to receive criticism for the handling of the situation, but he was merely the committee's spokesperson. O'Day declined to comment further for this story, deferring instead to the NCAA.
When asked if O'Day's decision to not comment further was his own or that of the NCAA, Schuh said it was both.
"The committee made its decision, they made an annoucement, now they're following through with the next steps," Schuh said. "They're letting that public announcement speak for itself. There's not much more to say on it. This is what we've been saying since the original annoucement. There is no need to speak on this situation any more than what was originally said."
Even Lehigh's dean of athletics, Joe Sterrett, said he had no further comment when reached by email this week.
"I've received lots of communication from people with no connection to Lehigh providing examples of offensive language used by students from all kinds of other schools," he replied. "It's clear that it's really going to be a challenge to clean up language that many students of today do not find as repugnant as do people of my generation, at least as judged by the extensiveness of the use of some of the language - on twitter, in music and in many other forms.
"Our feeling is that the best way to make real, meaningful and sustainable progress on this challenge is through educational efforts at the institutional level."
To that end, Lehigh plans to hold a series of discussions on derogatory language and its impact on campuses.
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Spadola has issued his own apology:
"To my competitors, teammates and to everyone else who has seen the tweet I forwarded and was offended by my action, I humbly apologize and ask for your forgiveness of my unwise behavior," he wrote. "At the time I received and forwarded the tweet, I didn't stop to think about how this could be offensive. In hindsight, I recognize that it was clearly inappropriate. I would never do anything to intentionally harm or berate others regardless of ethnicity. Everyone who knows me knows that to be true."