It was a rare and dramatic power play from a group of organized college athletes. But how it was delivered to reporters was noteworthy, too. The message came from the Gmail account of Valentino Daltoso, an offensive lineman at the University of California-Berkeley, and offered the personal email addresses of the other players so reporters could contact them.
“The interests of athletes aren’t always in line with the institutions and coaches,” said Andrew Cooper, a Cal cross-country runner who helped organize the effort. “It was important that we talked directly to the media.”
As college sports navigate their returns, enveloped by issues of racial justice, safety and amateurism, athletes have advocated for themselves this year in unprecedented ways. That’s including how they have delivered their messages.
Many college athletic departments prohibit players from talking to journalists without team permission. Some team handbooks urge players to not speak to the media at all. Others, including University of Alabama and University of Georgia, have policies against freshmen speaking to the media during the regular season. And many schools have policies that monitor or even restrict players’ social media accounts.
But in their efforts to advocate for change this year, players have increasingly cut out their athletic departments. The Pac-12 players maintained correspondence with reporters over several weeks about their negotiations with the conference. When Florida State’s head football coach said in an interview that he was having one-on-one conversations with players about George Floyd and racial justice, defensive lineman Marvin Wilson tweeted that it wasn’t true. Clemson’s football program recently eliminated a long-standing rule barring players from using social media, after star quarterback Trevor Lawrence tweeted about players’ rights and the return of the season over the summer.
As games are canceled and some universities withhold information about positive coronavirus tests in football programs, it’s especially critical that players are allowed to speak out, said Frank LoMonte, the head of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.
“We need to hear the voices of those most affected, who are putting their health and safety at risk to entertain us,” LoMonte said, calling schools “unduly secretive.” “It’s interesting to hear from athletes in normal times; it’s more important now.”
Some of those policies may even be unconstitutional, LoMonte said. Last month he wrote an article published in the Nebraska Law Review arguing that any restriction of speech for college athletes at public universities violates their constitutional rights.
“Anytime a government agency imposes a blanket restraint that you’re not allowed to be heard, it will be almost impossible to justify that restraint constitutionally,” said LoMonte, who previously headed the Student Press Law Center in Washington.
At least one school has, in fact, walked back its policy for fear of legal consequences. After a union drive by its football team, Northwestern University changed its team handbook in 2016. “You should never agree to an interview unless the interview has been arranged by the athletic communications office,” it once read. Now: