Collegiate athletes through the years have gotten political and called for change. Social media gives them the biggest megaphone yet.
Consider the case of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe: In 2015, a Missouri football player on Twitter demanded Wolfe's removal or resignation, saying the president had failed to address racial strife on campus.
Within 24 hours, more than 30 additional football team members joined the protest, boycotting practices and games in the middle of the season until Wolfe was fired or stepped down — which he did Nov. 9, 2015.
"You can't make the public care about an issue, but you can make them aware, and that's what social media does," said Adam Epstein, a business law and regulation professor at Central Michigan University and expert in sports law. "If you make them aware, it can lead them to change, and if the change is for the better, then that's a good thing."
In his paper in the Journal of Legal Aspects of Sport, Epstein explored social media's role in the Missouri demonstrations and the 2014 Northwestern University football team's unsuccessful bid to organize as a union.
These two efforts led Epstein and Clemson University co-author Kathryn Kisska-Schulze to look into past student-athlete campaigns that influenced change.
"It became pretty obvious that student-athletes have been activists since there have been student-athletes," said Epstein, whose paper received the journal's 2017 best article award. "We made an obvious conclusion that student-athletes today are the same as they were back in the 1920s, '30s and '40s and so on.
"The difference today is that everybody can hear about it, read about it and comment on it from their smartphones in an instant, and can interact with each other."
Olympic ambush silences athletes socially
Another recent Epstein paper focuses on the International Olympic Committee's decision to restrict social media during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympic Games.
"These two articles, from my point of view, are all about listening to the athletes themselves, rather than dictating without their input what they can and can't do," he said.
The IOC's Rule 40 prevents all Olympic athletes, coaches, trainers and participants from recognizing nonofficial Olympic sponsors in their social media posts during the games, with few exceptions.
Epstein's analysis appeared in The John Marshall Review of Intellectual Property Law. He offered 10 suggestions for how the IOC could have handled Rule 40 differently.
"With the athletes, here's another group of people that cares about what they do, makes sacrifices for what they do, are told what to do but really have no voice in the matter until social media arrives," said Epstein, who started his career as a professional sports agent and representative for U.S. Olympic athletes. "I completely understand where the IOC wants to protect its brand, but all the athletes want to do is express their voice."
And what about freedom of speech? It's a moot point when it comes to the Olympics, Epstein said. The IOC and United States Olympic Committee are not government agencies. They are private organizations.
"Contract law will trump constitutional law, especially in talking international competition," he said. "When you're talking about the United States Constitution, you're very limited in jurisdiction at the international level."
Epstein said he looks at such issues from a legal point of view and in terms of rights and justice. He said social media is not a cure-all. It creates more transparency, but it also comes with more responsibilities.
"With social media, the world has gotten to be a lot smaller, and it has become more transparent as well," he said. "Whether it be judges or general counsel for an organization, or whether it be athletes, coaches or even the fans, they now have access to each other in a more transparent way."