Illustration for The Intercollegiate by Arielle Trenk
Connecticut’s Randy Edsall asserts himself, quite publicly, as a pro-player college football coach. In 2019, after the passage of California’s landmark law allowing college athletes to profit off their names, images and likeness, Edsall enthusiastically embraced the idea. “I hope every state in the union passes the bill,” he said. In August, when UConn became the first FBS program to cancel its season because of the novel coronavirus, he cited his players’ concerns. “I wanted to make sure that our players had a say in this,” he said. “Because you take a look at a lot of these things that are going on — these players really didn’t have a say in anything.”
He further stressed that he wanted his players to be heard, to “learn how to speak up and take a stand and communicate with elders, and that way they aren’t afraid to go to people and say, ‘Hey, I’d just like to express my opinion.’”
Yet a look at last year’s UConn football rulebook, a 43-page document chock full of “objectives,” “goals,” “team policies,” “basic reminders,” “training rules and regulations,” platitudes and signature lines, suggests a less empowered vision of the college athlete.
On page 14 of the “Player Policy Manual,” there is spelled out, in all capital letters, the preconditioned fealty of Connecticut football players:
THE ULTIMATE VALUE FROM THESE RULES COMES NOT FROM OBEYING THEM FOR THE “RULES SAKE, THOUGH THIS IS IMPORTANT, BUT MORE SIGNIFICANTLY, FROM DENYING ONE’S SELF — SELF-DENIAL. SELF-DISCIPLINE, SELF-SACRIFICE, SELF-DENIAL IN ORDER THAT WE CAN AND DO, EVERYTHING POSSIBLE TO HELP US REALIZE OUR ABSOLUTE OUTER LIMITS AS INDIVIDUALS AND AS A TEAM.
In this case, Randy Edsall’s team. Under Randy Edsall’s rules. Which included, on page 38, the Huskies’ official “marriage policy”:
“Must let Head Coach know of your intentions if you are going to get married while in college.”
Come again? When queried, a UConn spokesman insisted Edsall’s prenup order, while “maybe clumsily written,” was only intended to support the best interests of his players.
“This policy is in place due to the fact that some NCAA compliance rules apply differently to student-athletes who are married,” says Pat McKenna, UConn’s Associate Director of Athletics for Athletic Communications. “We want to help these kids get the proper accommodations that are available to spouses and all. So, if you want to take some angle that is way out of line, that is your prerogative.”
But Tim Nevius, a former NCAA enforcement official who now runs a law practice representing college athletes, calls the rule “absurd” and says it doesn’t compute from an NCAA compliance standpoint.
“It’s just another example of the control schools can exhibit over athletes,” he says. “Team rules asking about marriage status would be a violation of federal law if the athletes were employees, which they are in every way but by name.”
However one views the premarital notice, this much is clear in Edsall’s edicts and hundreds of other team rulebooks The Intercollegiate examined: To be a Division I college athlete is to endure all kinds of encroachments — while being made to at least feign appreciation for them. “Must be positive at all times,” commanded the Winthrop track and field manual last year.
For as much as the college sports establishment insists publicly (and in court) that college athletes are just regular collegians, team rulebooks tell a much different tale. “I am aware that what I expect of you as part of this program is not necessarily what’s expected of normal college students,” read last year’s Fresno State men’s tennis handbook. “But none of you are normal.”
Or, as Boise State’s football “Player Policy Manual” framed it for Broncos athletes: “You will first be known as a Boise State University football player, then as ‘Joe Blow.’”
Team rules have long been a staple of interscholastic and intercollegiate sports, with pledges of individual sacrifice for the good of the team an almost universal part of the culture. But what once served as simple goal-setting tools have become cogs in a vast regulatory machine imposed on college athletes of all stripes, in both revenue and non-revenue sports, a system that invades, inspects, lords over, stereotypes, discriminates and pronounces judgment on multiple aspects of players’ personal lives.
This is repeatedly borne out in the thousands of pages of 2019-20 team-specific rules and athlete conduct policies we obtained, through public records requests, from 236 different college sports programs across 52 D-I universities. The rulebooks range from bulky binders with various sections and subsections, to those distilled into a few, axiomatic sentences. You can find our full collection here.
A cursory read through this paperwork establishes that many of these rules are necessary and proper. Sports teams, like any organization, need to set boundaries and establish some level of discipline to succeed. But taken together, the documents are a striking testament to the wide range of demands placed on college athletes — from legal-aged drinking restrictions to academic performance minimums to bodily hygiene directions to even more personal issues. In their totality, and in a number of specific examples, they start to look like orders from an employer.
“The scope of these rules shows how much control schools have over their athletes, which supports an argument that they are in fact employees of the institution,” says Nevius.
In 2014, the director of the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board determined that a group of Northwestern football players seeking to unionize had satisfied the necessary conditions to be considered employees of the university. Among the deciding factors, Peter Ohr wrote in his groundbreaking decision, was that the players were subject to a special set of team and athletic department rules, which other NU students were not.
But never mind employee status: In some instances, athletes were addressed as less than full citizens. “Remember, there are no given rights or privileges,” Rutgers’ football players were notified in last season’s code of conduct, “only duties and responsibilities and those student athletes that keep their promises to meet those duties and responsibilities will earn their rights and privileges.”
In his 14-page rules packet, then-head coach Chris Ash described the football staff’s modus operandi as being “at war with developing our players into accountable people,” a choice of phrase that reveals an almost carceral mindset. And how was this war waged? With levies, apparently.
Ash dedicated three rulebook pages to fleshing out an elaborately punitive “missed tutor policy,” which included pricey fines (from $50 to $125 per absence) exacted on unpaid (and often impoverished) college athletes, along with a multi-layered asset forfeiture system:
•The Athletic Business Department office will collect all monetary tutorial fines. Student-athletes can pay by cash, check or credit card. Student-athletes will be issued a receipt once they have paid the fine. •The coaching staff will provide a list to be sent to the Athletic Business Department and the compliance office every Friday outlining the students that have missed tutor appointments and opted for the fine. •The Athletic Business Department will have a spreadsheet that they will use to track student-athletes that have been reported for payments or outstanding debts.
Ash’s war — for his job, at least — ended in a rout last September, when he was fired following his team’s 52-0 loss at Michigan; he is currently the defensive coordinator at Texas. Neither Rutgers nor Ash responded to requests for comment.
“Any rule that imposes fines on unpaid athletes is disturbing, especially players from low income families,” says Nevius, who serves as executive director of the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative. “We don’t even fine coaches for playing concussed athletes or running conditioning drills that land players in the hospital.”
But it wasn’t just football players who bore the rulebooks’ brunt: Some of the most high-handed conduct policies were reserved for female athletes.
“REMEMBER: You represent OUR BRAND,” chided the 17-page rulebook for Texas Tech’s softball program, which admonished players about their “unconscious gestures and movements” and instructed, on no less than three occasions, to keep their “bellies, booties, and boobs (chests)” covered at all times.
If not condescending, Kansas’s women’s golf rulebook was just downright confusing [emphasis added]:
“No one-handed putts, club throwing, club tossing, or abusive language. Golf is a gentleman’s game.”
Of course, a number of the guidelines read as perfectly reasonable, establishing expectations that players not show up hungover for games, that they don’t get into fisticuffs with teammates, and that they don’t trash locker rooms. Other rules even evinced a sense of moral wisdom: “I will respect all student-athletes and members of the athletic department regardless of race, sex, gender, creed or sexual orientation,” stated the Texas Tech’s women’s tennis team rules.
Along this prescriptive continuum, there were rules that seemed both sensible and indicative of something problematic — perhaps with college sports writ large. Take, for example, the “restaurant rule” for Texas A&M’s softball program, which illustrates the odd power dynamics between coaches and players:
In College Station if a softball staff member is at a restaurant and a player/s arrive, the players/s leave. If the player/s is at the restaurant first then they can stay and the staff member/s will leave. This eliminates the appearance of any unethical conduct.
Aggies coach Jo Evans says the rule, which she’s had on the books for “several years,” is an attempt to avoid the public perception that coaches may be condoning athlete drinking behavior, if they and players are spotted in the same establishment.
“It allows people to not be in an uncomfortable situation,” says Evans.
The putative fear of public embarrassment motivated this eye-catching rule from UConn’s perennial power men’s soccer program: “Proper use of bathroom facilities is always expected.”
In a telephone interview, head coach Ray Reid explained that the admonition was specifically meant to dissuade players from relieving themselves outdoors, following an incident, over two decades ago, where a player “went into the woods” to urinate after practice.
“I figured let’s just take care of it on the front end,” says Reid.
“I FULLY UNDERSTAND”
While the depths of the manuals provided plenty of fodder for anecdotes, the sheer mass of rules invited more generalized analysis. Taken as a data set, the documents revealed much about college sports, including its cultures, values, and biases. We discovered:
- Football and men’s basketball players were among the least likely to have their coach set forth GPA expectations above the minimum required to maintain eligibility.
- Women’s and men’s basketball were the most likely athletes to be told where they should sit in class.
- Revenue-sport coaches were far less likely to set forth alcohol restrictions for their legal-aged players than those for non-revenue sports. For example, only one of the 17 written rulebooks for men’s basketball programs placed any kind of drinking restrictions on their 21-and-over athletes. By contrast, more than half women’s basketball rulebooks included these provisions.
- Men’s teams (27.3 percent) were far less likely than women’s teams (51 percent) to specify written alcohol restrictions on 21-and-over athletes. The national pastime bears out this stark contrast: Some 70 percent of women’s softball team rules contained legal-age drinking restrictions, while only 19 percent of those from baseball teams did.
- Women’s basketball teams (the lone college sport that is both female and plurality Black) were by far the most likely to have written rules about players’ personal appearance or hygiene. In fact, more than half of the women’s basketball rulebooks we obtained included specific instructions about off-the-court looks and cleanliness. Women’s basketball players were also the most likely in these documents to face written regulations about tattoos.
- While hazing rituals are universally prohibited on D-I campuses — and illegal in 44 states — we found that football and swimming and diving were the most likely sports to include anti-hazing language in their team rules. Women’s and men’s basketball and baseball, on the other hand, were among the least likely sports.
- Tennis teams — which have a disproportionately large number of international students — were most likely to explicitly restrict the speaking of foreign languages. Of the six rulebooks we encountered with some kind of English-only provision, five were from tennis squads.
- Women’s soccer was the sport most likely to enact a restriction on wearing other universities’ gear.
Since this article is about document disclosures, we should probably offer our own: What we obtained is by no means an exhaustive list of the rules in the programs we solicited. We didn’t ask for every school or every sport and, for those we did, it is quite likely that some relevant materials might not have been furnished, based on how different universities may have interpreted our document requests. (In a few instances, the documents we received were labeled as 2018-19 rulebooks.) Still, we have managed to acquire a representative cross section of Division I sports: 127 women’s, 89 men’s and 15 coed programs; 55 teams from Black plurality sports (football and men’s and women’s basketball); and an almost perfectly even split between Power 5 and non-Power 5 squads.
These documents preceded the coronavirus pandemic, the George Floyd protests and the ensuing athlete activism that has come to the fore in recent months. Considered in this new context, the written rules posit an increasingly central question for this chaotic, potentially kairotic moment in the history of college sports: What should an athlete be expected to surrender in exchange for a grant-in-aid?
The answer to this question is shrouded in a couple of inconvenient truths: This bureaucracy can be weaponized by coaches. And even if an athlete tows the line and follows every rule to the letter, the coach can still pull their scholarship, for any reason. Or no reason. “I fully understand that my scholarship is a 1 YEAR RENEWABLE AGREEMENT,” read the attestation language above the signature line for Houston women’s basketball pledge.
The accountability typically goes in one direction. And it’s a lot of accountability.
That may be a feature rather than a bug. The materials we have identified come at the bottom of the stack of agreements athletes must abide by just to participate in a single practice. Before they even get to team-specific rules, players have already signed their names on the dotted lines of national letters-of-intent; Buckley Amendment consent forms; NCAA student-athlete statements; various medical consent forms; athletic department student-athlete handbooks; name, image and likeness release forms; drug-testing consent forms; conference sportsmanship affidavits; anti-gambling agreements; anti-agent agreements; and limited HIPAA waivers — among other sheets of paper. Even with all that, individual coaches feel compelled to add to (or rehash) this paperwork with another page (or ream) of team-specific strictures.
Their dispensations further reveal the many logical and ethical problems of this system, which is built around college athletes performing public-relations work for universities and their corporate partners in exchange for no wages. Rules ostensibly for the athletes’ benefit can be a cudgel to ensure some other entity looks good — be it the coach, the athletic director, the school or a $34.8 billion apparel company.
“No spatting”, stated Boise State’s football rulebook, banning the practice of tightly winding tape around football cleats. “NIKE will fine us and/or eliminate sponsorship if you spat.”
At least that was transparent. Many of the regulations were not. So, in addition to obtaining these various rulebooks, we also sought to ask a number of their authors, “Why?” Why do you care if your athletes wear hoodies or get tattoos or join a sorority? And, perhaps more important, is it any of your business?
“DON’T EMBARRASS THE PROGRAM”
Questions about what coaches can and should demand of their players have drawn increased attention this year, with COVID-19 pledges thrust upon athletes by schools such as Ohio State, and liability waivers reportedly forced on athletes at Louisville and SMU. But the pandemic also revealed that team rules might be more fungible during this global catastrophe. Several schools we reached out to for comment on puzzling or seemingly draconian rules insisted that the examples we cited in their rulebooks had already been amended, or were no longer enforced. More publicly, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence last month signaled the end of the football power’s decade-long ban on in-season social media use with his tweeting out the solidarity hashtag #WeWanttoPlay.
As we discovered upon obtaining Clemson’s football “Player Rules and Regulations,” the follicularly free-flowing Lawrence had been riding the line on another one of head coach Dabo Swinney’s official demands:
14. Hair rule - you are expected to maintain a NEAT, WELL GROOMED AND STRUCTURED appearance. Facial - beards and moustache must be neatly trimmed and tight. HEAD – No extreme hairdos.
Even if it’s honored in the breach, the Tigers’ four-page litany of limits on individual behavior, written with little regard for standard English grammar and punctuation, testified to a fairly typical attitude throughout college sports in general, and college football in particular.
Rule No. 1? “Don’t embarrass the program!”
Maintain Clemson’s image – clean, confident, proud, this is Clemson football. No one is indispensable. Team rights supersede an individual’s rights.
“Dress appropriately when coming to Football Office. Keep pants pulled up.”
The fourth estate, meanwhile, is identified by Swinney as the gravest of threats:
“NO communication with any media without approval. (Not your friend!)”
Some of the restrictions we discovered reached deeply into the most personal of interactions — athletes’ love lives, especially those of female athletes — and most particularly, gay relationships among teammates.
“Romantic relationships are your business and your choice,” states the UCLA women’s basketball policy. “However, physical, intimate and/or dating relationships are NOT allowed within the team.”
UCLA coach Cori Close — a self-avowed acolyte of John Wooden, the legendary parson of Pauley Pavilion — also presided over one of the two programs we discovered from last season that formally forbid visible hickeys. The other anti-love bite stickler? Texas Tech coach Marlene Stollings, who was recently fired over numerous player-abuse allegations first reported by USA Today and The Intercollegiate. Per Stollings’ mandate, Lady Raiders found with hickeys faced a mandatory sentence: “3 consecutive morning workouts with the performance coach.”
In a statement through a school spokesperson, Close said her team rules are established on a year-to-year basis through a “collaborative process between our coaching staff and our student-athlete leadership group.” Close characterized her romantic injunctions as “supplemental expectations,” and said that they are not part of the program’s current rulebook.
In her team’s catalogue of “Rules we Live By,” Rhode Island women’s basketball coach Tammi Reiss, a former WNBA player and film actress, likened intra-team dating to a form of incest: “We are a family. We will not date our family members which include players, managers and practice players.” (Reiss did not respond to a request for comment.)
Colorado’s women’s basketball rules frowned on all sorts of romantic interactions. “Examples of relationships that are NOT healthy for your TEAM: Dating the same person as a teammate, dating a teammate, dating a teammate’s ex, dating a teammate’s family member, dating a professor/staff member, managers, interfering in a teammates’ relationship/love interest.”
In a statement to The Intercollegiate, CU coach JR Payne described this “more as guidance” and “not something that we have enforced.”
“We always encourage our players to engage in relationships that help them be the very best they can be while providing value and balance to their lives,” Payne says.
While Arizona State’s women’s soccer squad expressly prohibited intra-team dating, ASU softball just requested that “any relationships between team members should not interfere with meetings, practices or games.” (Neither of the program’s coaches responded to inquiries.)
Houston’s women’s basketball policy stated, “Romantic relationships are discouraged within the program,” but it doesn’t appear to have been a blanket prohibition. (“We are not going to provide a comment on this matter at this time,” a UH spokesperson told us.)
Intra-team dating bans raise all kinds of legal and ethical issues and have been dissuaded by the NCAA since at least 2013.
That year, the governing body of college sports tapped Pat Griffin, an LGBTQ educator and professor emerita at UMass, to provide guidelines for coaches on “managing dating relationships among teammates.”
As Griffin noted in her report, “The potential negative consequences of adopting a policy prohibiting dating among teammates outweigh the positive outcomes of such a policy.” She questioned whether coaches “have the legal or moral authority to dictate the personal relationships of their team members,” and suggested that “no-dating” policies applied only to women’s teams, or only to same-sex dating, could violate federal Title IX laws.
In an interview, Shannon Minter, Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said that it is “blatantly unlawful” for schools to only apply intra-team dating restrictions to female athletes. “That is sex discrimination, straight up,” Minter said, noting that the bans could further implicate Constitutional violations when this is being meted out at a public university.
In 2016, Prairie View A&M fired Dawn Brown as its women’s basketball coach after she suspended two players for dating each other. The players had filed a Title IX complaint, accusing Brown of violating their civil rights. Brown, who is currently the coach at Arkansas Pine Bluff, contended the team policy was written in conjunction with the school’s Title IX office. She later tried to sue the university for defamation and tort claims, but an appeals court dismissed the case over a procedural matter.
Two other women’s programs we contacted about their intra-team dating prohibitions claimed the rules had already been stricken from their books.
Iowa State’s volleyball coach, Christy Johnson-Lynch, told The Intercollegiate that her established ban was nixed in the off-season after the team’s sports administrator consulted with university lawyers. “The previous policies were intended to address power differentials even consenting relationships can have, and to avoid conflicts of interest between personal relationships and team concerns,” Johnson-Lynch said. “While we will continue to educate our staff and student athletes on how power differentials can affect relationships, we have decided to take the blanket policy out of our handbook.”
The University of Illinois-Chicago’s women’s basketball program, whose team rule stated that, “we as coaches pledge never to judge you on sexual orientation,” went on to stipulate, “We also expect that there will not be any relationships on the team.”
Dan Yopchick, an athletic department spokesperson, said the rulebook UIC provided us was an out-of-date copy, and that this rule had in fact been done away with prior to last season. Yopchick explained that new Athletic Director Michael Lipitz, who was hired this past October, undertook a customary review of UIC’s various team rules and “that was one that was identified to be promptly removed.” Yopchick provided The Intercollegiate a copy of a Word document displaying what he said was the team’s current rulebook, which makes no mention of players’ relationships.
The document we originally obtained had also sought to police athletes’ public displays of affection, something a handful of other women’s sports rulebooks had also attempted.
Texas Tech softball, which exhorted its athletes to “avoid if at all possible” dating teammates, also stated that a player should not engage in a “public display of affection on any media outlet (i.e. kissing or photos suggesting, leading or partaking in sexual conduct).” (TTU softball coach Adrian Gregory declined to comment.)
Kansas women’s basketball players were asked to consent to the following: “I will be conscious of my image, and I understand that public displays of affection are discouraged.” (KU coach Brandon Schneider declined to comment.)
We found no such PDA guidelines for KU’s men’s programs — or any men’s programs, for that matter.
To the extent that male athletes’ romantic and sex lives were addressed, it was almost always to warn them, at times quite frankly, about issues of sexual consent and sexual assault, reinforcing polices that have become common on broader college campuses:
“Sexual harassment or any type of sexual offense will not be tolerated and may result in the immediate expulsion from the team,” said the Jayhawk’s men’s basketball handbook. “We treat all females with class and the utmost respect.”
At Iowa, the wrestling program rules doubled down on campus code-of-conduct sexual assault policies on: “Sexual misconduct and assault is at an all-time high, remember an act that seems harmless can turn into a nightmare if alcohol is involved and you do not know your ‘partner.’”
Texas Tech’s football “Student-Athlete Policy Manual” sent a similar message with its “Date Rape and Social Policy”:
Studies have shown that one-third of sexual attacks on college campuses have involved student-athletes. These crimes are punishable by law and up to 30 years in prison. Take time to think before you act. Do not put yourself in a No-Win situation.
One notable relationship-policing outlier was Iowa State’s football program, which prohibited its players from engaging in “social relations” with: “academic tutors/mentors; student trainers; recruiting assistants; office workers; equipment managers; custodial members.”
Head football coach Matt Campbell did not respond to a request for comment, but Iowa State athletics spokesman Steve Malchow told The Intercollegiate: “Administratively, the athletics department supports the rule you cited as such relationships could easily blur the lines between professional and personal conduct.”
“NO SCHOOLWORK DURING MATCHES”
Without exception, coaches prominently featured academics as a centerpiece of their individual team policies. In addition to promising harsh penalties for cheating, the team rulebooks ostensibly challenged athletes to reach their scholastic potential. But these expectations weren’t distributed uniformly across sports.
Non-revenue sports generally had more cases of “team GPA goals” of 3.0 or above — far surpassing individual school and NCAA eligibility requirements; football and men’s basketball coaches made few such demands. Of the eight sports rulebooks we obtained from Minnesota, only the women’s soccer team enumerated a player GPA expectation beyond the minimum necessary to continue pursuing a degree.
Georgia’s women’s tennis players were expected to be the top Bulldogs: “It is the goal for the team to have a minimum overall GPA of 3.20 each semester and have the highest GPA of any sport at UGA.”
And Rutgers’ swimmers and divers were expected to be the top, period: “We expect to have the highest team GPA in the nation.”
In programs that did establish an above-eligibility academic standard, athletes who fall short were typically summoned to the study table for a set number of hours each week. At Fresno State, men’s tennis players faced mandatory study hall if they received less than a 3.0 GPA; swimmers and divers at the school only needed to paddle above a 2.5.
There were sometimes other carrots and sticks: Cal Poly women’s basketball players needed a 2.5 GPA in order to move off-campus. San Diego State scholarship baseball players were alerted that if they failed to net a 2.4 cumulative GPA, their scholarship would be “reduced, cancelled or non-renewed.”
Although it was by far the most expensive, Rutgers football wasn’t the only team we discovered that taxed players for missed tutoring sessions: Texas Tech softball fined its athletes $10; Texas A&M baseball players owed $25.
Lest these rules suggest a college sports system that’s entirely devoted to educating students — a premise called into question by previous document discoveries we’ve made — there seems to be some striking counterexamples in this batch, as well.
“NO SCHOOLWORK DURING MATCHES,” screamed the South Carolina women’s tennis team handbook. (Mind you, this is a sport where a former world No. 1, Jim Courier, once read Armistead Maupin during changeovers in a match.)
“This rule generally applies to the fall when we are playing individual tournaments,” says Gamecocks coach Kevin Epley. “Players play throughout the day in these events, and we want our players watching and supporting their teammates, rather than working on schoolwork.”
For Minnesota men’s basketball — a program with a dubious academic history — last year’s players were told that “all academic assignments must be approved by your academic tutor…before it is submitted.”
Dan Reisig, a UM spokesman, said the provision was “in place to ensure that student-athletes are following the guidelines and parameters of their academic assignments.”
Reisig added, “Completed academic assignments that are submitted by the individual student-athlete are not modified by academic staff.”
“KEEP IT IN THE FAMILY”
Programs frequently displayed the paranoid style in American college coaching with their limits on how players could express themselves. Of particular concern to teams were players speaking out of school about the inner workings of the program. Boise State football offered its expectation with an explanation:
“What happens in our program should stay in our program. Talking about our team issues to your friends, family, media or the public may cause substantial disruption for our team…You should not engage in conversation or provide information on the internet or social media that may cause a substantial disruption to our team. This includes your parents!”
The Boise State women’s soccer program was more concise: “Keep it in the family.”
“AGGIES NEVER AIR DIRTY LAUNDRY,” said Texas A&M’s baseball rulebook, followed by: “NO MESSAGE BOARDS – EVER.”
Many programs instituted similar gag rules. At Kansas, women’s soccer players were to abide by this one: “Issues within the program stay within the program and relevant athletic department personnel; no outside sources should know what is going on with the soccer program.”
Ball State’s women’s soccer threatened “serious consequences” for any player who ‘talk(s) negative about others without addressing the problem to that person, or without them knowing.”
Clemson volleyball hammered home its confidentiality demand with clip art:
Maddie Salamone, a lawyer and athlete rights advocate who chaired the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee while playing lacrosse at Duke, says written non-disclosure policies — even those that read like benign beckons to team loyalty — can have a deleterious effect on athletes’ well-being and safety.
“These rules create an environment where athletes fear speaking out about anything, including extreme abuse,” says Salamone. “Speaking out then becomes synonymous with being a bad teammate. Athletes understand that violating that sacred rule will likely cost them playing time, possibly their scholarship, and often the support of their teammates, who will see it as a ‘betrayal.’”
Salamone notes that “catchall” language in team rules about what topics are off-the-record can work to undermine other stated athletic department policies or instructions about reporting serious problems and concerns.
In at least one program, we now know there was plenty to hide. The Texas Tech women’s basketball list of don’ts included, “Speak negatively about your family, friends, teammates, coaches, opponents, or Texas Tech Athletics.”
The report on Texas Tech by USA TODAY and The Intercollegiate last month revealed multiple allegations made internally by players against Stollings and the team’s former athletic trainer, Ralph Petrella. Meanwhile, another program recently dogged by abusive coaching allegations, Rutgers softball, gave last season’s player’s this order: “No complaining!”
Rulebooks, especially those for non-revenue sports teams, often tried to put limits on parental communication, with playing time being the most verboten subject.
“Parents will not be allowed to call any of the coaches about playing time,” per Purdue’s Boilermaker Baseball Standards.
“Your parents can feel free to call Coach Bruno at any time to discuss anything other than playing time,” Michigan State’s men’s tennis team declared.
Notably, it was when confronting the apparent scourge of helicopter parenting that team rulebooks pivoted from infantilizing players to insisting on their maturity.
According to Texas’ softball rules, “If you disagree with something you, not your parents, must set up an appointment to meet with the coaches.”
“Complaining to your significant others, parents, or teammates will not help solve problems, but most times help to escalate them,” Illinois-Chicago’s women’s basketball players were told. “Be mature and come and talk to me.”
“Coach Jackson or any members of the coaching staff will not speak to any parents about playing time, shot selections, etc.,” Akron’s “Team Expectations” packet said. “You are all adults and will be treated as adults, If you have a problem with any of the above you can come see Coach Jackson and speak with her directly with the cognizant knowledge of what has been going on in practice every day.”
East Carolina’s women’s soccer program went so far as to suggest its players were responsible for managing their blood relatives’ emotions: “Your family should not be negative towards the program, if you are being a good team member and focusing on the positives that should be the way they look at our program.”
“NO ONE OUTSIDE THE ORGANIZATION”
With such constraints on private speech, it’s perhaps not surprising how many schools laid out prescriptions and proscriptions regarding mainstream and social media.
Almost universally, schools required athletes to deal with any media request through the athletic department’s sports information staff, forbidding players to give any contact information to reporters. Under former head coach Mel Tucker, Colorado’s football “Player Manual” took it a step further last season: “No one outside of the organization is allowed to participate in any interviews, this includes parents and family members.”
David Plati, CU’s sports information director, said that rule was Tucker’s alone and did not conform with the athletic department’s overall media guidance for athletes. “Not sure how you can keep a parent from doing an interview to begin with,” Plati acknowledged. Tucker, now head coach at Michigan State, did not respond to a request for comment.
Beyond that, coaches were not shy about telling players what to say and how to say it.
Marshall men’s soccer players “must portray this program, your coaching staff and teammates and this university in a positive light,” according to its team rules.
“Speak positively about your coaches and teammates,” demanded Texas Tech’s baseball handbook. “The media tends to look at the negatives, don’t fall into that trap.”
The Texas A&M baseball handbook told players that the media “are free to talk to you,” but then attempted to dictate, in fine detail, the other end of those interactions:
Always include in your talk one of the pillars of our program—ATTITUDE/APPROACH/INTENSITY/TOUGHNESS Don’t compare, knock, or criticize your opponents, only praise them. (Don’t kick a sleeping dog!) Be confident but not boastful. Be humble! Give credit to your teammates. Never pass up an opportunity to praise. Do not take your complaints to the media. The coach’s office is the only place for these Do not say anything about what we do technically (i.e. signs, etc.). Do not say anything that would help our opponents or end up on their bulletin board. Be kind and courteous to media. When a news person makes an appointment, be prompt. It is a credit to you and the program whenever you receive publicity. Be sure to remember that you are only as good as your last performance. Do not rest on your laurels.
A recent report and upcoming law review article by the Brechner Center for the Freedom of Information asserts that these kinds of restrictions by public university athletic departments, common as they may be, are clear-cut violations of athletes’ First Amendment rights. (Brechner Center director Frank LoMonte and journalist Sara Ganim unpacked this issue in episode 20 of The Intercollegiate podcast.)
Mainstream media policies, though restrictive, at least have the benefit of decades-long traditions of sports information offices working with generally eager-to-please reporters. There is decidedly less ease with the 21st century tech-spawned media environment. College coaches share the same distaste for cell phones that their faculty peers often do, and dozens have crafted rules designed to restrict cell phone use on team time. Confiscation of cell phones on trips and during team meals was not uncommon. But if mobile devices are treated like diseased rodents, social media was often cast as the plague.
Just about every athletic department’s student-athlete handbook dedicates copious space to its athlete social media policy — call it the Cardale Jones rule — and most get at much the same thing: Don’t be controversial. Even still, about a third of the team rules supplemented department edicts with Twitter and Facebook warnings of their own.
The Kentucky’s women’s basketball team “Team Rules and Policies” were exhaustive, to say the least:
•You can post up to FOUR times a day but no more than FOUR a day during season. Season will be considered 1st official day of practice in October to our last game in the post season. •After post season until our first official practice in October, you can tweet up to 10 times per day. •A retweet counts as ONE in your daily allowance •Keep your personal life off of social media. •Pictures with friends, boyfriends/girlfriends should not include sexual gestures or imply sexual gestures. •Do not use curse words or racial slurs (“gay”, “homo”, “n*gga”, etc) in your comments or social media status. This include acronyms (“WTF”, “MOFO” “FO”, “Biihhhh” [sic] , “AF”, “MF”, “TTA”, “WYFM” etc.) •Game Days – no posting starting two hours before the game (earlier is ok) •Do not retweet something from an inappropriate handle (no names with curses, sexual or racist references) •Do not engage with criticism or haters •Respect and know your audience – could be parents, recruits, professors •Do not comment negatively about a class or assignment (Psychology 101 is the worst class ever ... so boring) •If you think a post may be inappropriate, do not make it public •Keep things within the UK family – no injury talk, game plans or negativity •Check your photos closely before posting – make sure nothing unusual is in the background and your clothing is appropriate (no images wearing just a sports bra) •Do not use social media to sell items or promote events, trainers, club programs, etc. •All players must accept UK staff member request on all social media accounts.
In response to an inquiry, Evan Crane, a Kentucky athletics spokesman, said these detailed guidelines from head coach Matthew Mitchell are a vestige of an earlier era.
“Although they have remained in our team manual,” Crane says, “we have not upheld them in recent years and updated this year’s team manual to reflect our current philosophy which encourages our players to use social media in a variety of ways, especially to engage our fans and promote themselves and our program.”
While some programs nod their head at the notion of free expression, their specific rules frequently discourage engagement in democracy, capitalism or even fashion.
The Kentucky men’s tennis team’s broad list of forbidden online topics include:
Promotion of any brands/company’s per NCAA rule Posting of pictures containing any form of alcohol or alcohol brands Posting of personal views regarding outside athletic programs, e.g. Politics, Religion or Sexual Preference."
(UK coach Cedric Kauffmann declined to comment on the rule.)
Freedom of association isn’t exactly celebrated, either. Several team rulebooks put players’ Greek life at the discretion of the coach. Rutgers’ cross country and track and field athletes didn’t even get to plead their cases:
“Pledging a fraternity or sorority is prohibited. Joining a fraternity or sorority will be cause for immediate removal from the team and cancellation of scholarship, if applicable.”
“YOU, NOT THE JEWELRY”
The coaching diktats often included restrictions on personal appearance, and appeared to single out Black athletes in particular.
Clemson football players were told not to wear doo-rags in “meetings, class, study hall or weight room.” South Carolina Upstate men’s basketball banned them entirely on campus. Akron ordered its women’s basketball players to avoid “hats or hoods” in public. Rhode Island women’s basketball restricted “hats, handkerchiefs or head skull caps at any meals.” Colorado football instructed players that “hair must be neat and acceptable in appearances” and that “pants must be worn properly.”
In banning “hats on backwards, durags or bandanas while on campus,” Prairie View A&M’s men’s basketball “Team Guidelines and Regulations” explained, “Our team will not look anything less than a student athlete.”
That also means, according to team rules, that head coach Byron Smith had to clear any new tattoos.
And don’t even ask about getting a tat on your neck: The team rulebook noted those were completely off limits. (Smith did not respond to a request for comment.)
Tattoo restrictions popped up several times. Arizona State’s women’s soccer “Standards and Expectations” banned new tattoos during the season. Iowa State women’s basketball team rules barred players from getting new tattoos “that are visible when wearing Iowa State clothing,” but when reached by email, head coach Bill Fennelley told The Intercollegiate he was no longer imposing the restriction he’s had on the books for decades.
“Because student-athletes have rightly started to express themselves more than ever before, we are eliminating that restriction in our updated team rules,” said Fennelley. “Although we’ve never had issues with player tattoos, it isn’t aligned with our belief today that personal self-expression by our players is acceptable.”
Other programs imposed their own notions of female propriety.
“No belly buttons showing or inappropriate skin exposed” on road trips, according to ASU’s softball rules.
“Your clothing should not be sloppy or too small,” Cincinnati women’s basketball ordered its players. “Your shirt should be tucked in.”
Texas’s softball program fretted over a different kind of immodesty:
At dinners, University and alumni events jewelry can be worn but please remember moderation – we want them to see you, not the jewelry.
Hygiene rules, meanwhile, were also almost exclusively aimed at female athletes.
Nevada women’s tennis and soccer players were told to shower after all road games. (No male Wolfpack handbooks we obtained made such mention.) New Mexico’s women’s basketball players were told to, more generally, “Take care of personal hygiene daily.”
Then there are team policies that seemed ripped from an early volume of The Ladies Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper, like this from Kansas’ women’s basketball handbook:
I will learn and understand the importance of presentation and etiquette. I understand the necessity of proper personal hygiene and cleanliness. I am aware that an appropriate appearance in my dress as well as my person is expected.
Colorado’s women’s basketball program reminded players to: “Shower, use soap, deodorant, change all clothes after training etc.: towels/loofahs”
Payne, the CU coach, says this was merely an attempt at pragmatic health policy.
“Many of our athletics facilities are high-traffic areas,” she says. “We encourage good personal hygiene practices to help ensure we’re all doing our part to limit the spread of colds or other infectious diseases and to protect the health and well-being of our fellow student-athletes and athletics staff members.”
While men’s sports had fewer references to personal appearance, there was one exception: baseball handbooks’ hair obsession. Clemson’s asked for players to keep hair and beards within “moderate length and groomed.”
At Akron, “Facial hair and hair length must be of a professional appearance, as noted by the Head Coach.” Purdue took issue with “exaggerated hair dying,” and demanded, in capital letters, a “CLEAN SHAVEN LINE FOR ALL FUNCTIONS.”
Bowling Green forbade facial hair until the team clinched a MAC Tournament berth. (With their season preempted by the coronavirus, players never got the chance at a playoff beard. And in June, BGSU hired a new head baseball coach to replace longtime skipper Danny Schmitz.)
Texas A&M applied the “2-inch rule” for hair length, disallowed sideburns and beards, and demanded glabrous cheeks seven days a week. Head coach Rob Childress says these rules, which were in place just through the fall season, “has everything to do with who is disciplined and who isn’t.” He explains:
“I ask the guys to do three things each morning. Shave, make your bed and call your mom. I believe if each guy can accomplish these three small tasks each morning they will have a chance to accomplish many more throughout the day. Conversely, if someone can not manage these tasks each morning then I would say they may have a hard time accomplishing much bigger tasks that are going to be asked of them academically and athletically.”
Given athletic departments’ contractual obligations with apparel companies, and the athletes’ lack of control of any individual licensing, it’s perhaps no surprise that many teams had stipulations about wearing team-approved gear in public.
Clemson football players were told not to wear another school’s apparel or hat while speaking to the media, though this wasn’t as rigid as the Minnesota women’s soccer team guidelines, the flouting of which triggered an automatic appointment with the conditioning coach:
DO NOT wear other school's gear while representing the University of Minnesota (i.e. do not show up to breakfast on the road in a Stanford sweatshirt). If you are wearing a school's gear/logo, it is the University of Minnesota. Consequence: meeting with Corey.
Binghamton men’s soccer players would be punished with 25 push-ups if caught in another university’s duds during team functions. (The school declined to comment.)
Schools frequently weighed in on road trip clothing, usually restricting players to team gear. One crumb of autonomy: New Mexico women’s soccer team captains chose what contracted sneaker-company-approved togs would be worn on the plane, bus or in the hotel lobby.
Besides their mandated Nike/Under Armour/Russell Athletic/Adidas apparel, what else should every college athlete wear? A watch.
Coaches put strict time limits on already tightly scheduled athletes, including how quickly they must respond to text messages from staff. However, the window varied widely: Arizona State softball gave their players 48 hours to respond; UCLA women’s basketball offered eight; and Akron’s women’s basketball allowed but one.
“As we explain to our student-athletes, we won’t be blowing up their phone all the time. So when we do reach out to them mostly via a phone call it is usually REALLY important and thus should require some timely response,” says Zips head coach Melissa Jackson.
Clock management is almost a religion. What ideological conclusions should one then draw from Clemson’s football doctrine: “The official time is on Coach Swinney’s wrist”?
Akron baseball and Iowa State men’s basketball appealed to a different football deity: Nick Saban. Both programs’ handbooks quote the Alabama football coach’s aphorism on “The Concept of Time.”
Something as simple as being on time is important because it shows you care, it shows that it is important to you. It shows we can trust you. It shows your teammates can trust you. It is important to pay attention to detail. Know what your role is and be responsible and accountable to do it, because if you can’t prove that every day, how can the other guys on the field trust you? They may not say it, but how can they trust you?
It’s not mere tardiness that is castigated: A number of team rulebooks held an equal disdain for not being early enough. According to the Georgia men’s tennis team handbook, “Arriving 15 minutes early for practice is the expectation.” The Bulldogs also had a “no-clock-watching” rule.
“If you’re not five minutes early, you’re late,” decreed the written expectations for Eastern Kentucky men’s basketball. EKU’s women’s hoops bent the space-time continuum even more: “If you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re late.”
The NCAA attempts to keep athletics from overwhelming athletes with its Countable Athletically Related Activities rule, which limits team activities to 20 hours per week.
Does enforced early arrival serve as a potential CARA workaround? EKU women’s coach Samantha Williams says her practices typically stop well short of the allotted three hours per day, so that it more than compensates for her players arriving early. So why make this a rule, at all?
“You are just trying to teach these kids how to be on time, how to be prepared, and how to be ready,” Williams says.
Indeed, athletes’ time is so regulated, some teams even attempted to enforce curfews on squabbling. “If something happens or you are bothered by behavior you have 48 hours,” stated the ASU softball rulebook. Kansas women’s soccer was even less patient, giving their athletes a maximum of 24 hours to resolve “any conflicts or issues that occur.”
“DISCRETION OF THE HEAD COACH”
With so many rules that seem unnecessary, unreasonable and unenforceable, it’s worth asking why they continue to proliferate. The answers may lie, in some cases, in the rulebooks themselves. A few schools quite clearly state the athletic scholarship is a 12-month pact, and that violations of the accompanying rules could mean revocation.
A number of the rulebooks read as if they are two-way binding agreements; as long as athletes follow their stated requirements, they won’t face dismissal. Some, like Clemson’s women’s tennis team rules, even laid out specific discipline roadmaps that would lead to a players’ removal from the team. But as Nevius, the former NCAA enforcement official, explains, there is nothing stopping a coach — certainly not the NCAA — from arbitrarily changing the terms.
Here then, team rules can serve as a fig leaf for coaches who want to offload an unproductive, injured, or otherwise unwanted player. Why are you losing your scholarship? Not because the team got a better player and no longer needs you to win, but because you tweeted wrong. Or joined a sorority. Or got a visible tattoo. Or showed up late twice.
And today’s rules may be completely different tomorrow, which a few programs were at least candid enough to state for the record.
“These … policies are not exclusive and the coaching staff reserves the right to expand, add to, or adjust these policies at any time,” provided the Kansas women’s basketball handbook.
Moreover, coaches can choose whether or when to enforce them, as Rutgers signaled in boilerplate language towards the end of each Scarlet Knights team rulebook:
Recognizing that each situation presents a unique set of circumstances, deviation from what is listed in these Team Rules may be warranted in the sole discretion of the Head Coach.
In other words, player beware.