Don’t Use Our Brand

Louisiana State University tells athletes not to wear university gear if they talk publicly about the outcome of the Alton Sterling case.

May 10, 2017

Louisiana State University has asked its athletes not to wear the institution’s gear or use its “branding” if they share public opinions about the case of Alton Sterling, a black man whom Baton Rouge police fatally shot last year.

Free speech advocates said in interviews they believe wholehearted support for athletes’ First Amendment rights would actually boost LSU’s image, especially at a time when free expression has been hotly debated on college campuses.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced last week it would not file federal charges against the Baton Rouge police officers who killed Sterling, though charges could possibly be pursued at the state level. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said in a statement last week that federal officials will provide the Louisiana State Police with materials for a state investigation, with the assistance of a Louisiana Department of Justice prosecutor.

Shortly after, Miriam Segar, LSU’s senior associate athletics director, emailed all athletes, according to news reports, telling them that university acknowledged the impassioned views surrounding this topic, and that it supported the students’ right to express their opinions. She also mentioned the university’s counseling services.

However, Segar wrote, the university requested its athletes avoid donning LSU gear or its branding if they address the case publicly -- particularly on social media.

“As student athletes, you are some of LSU’s most visible ambassadors. Many of you enjoy a large following and with that comes responsibility. Remember that what you say and do directly impacts how people around the world view LSU,” Segar wrote in another part of the email.

LSU spokesman Ernie Ballard said Tuesday the university had no comment beyond the email.

Prominent former LSU athletes have spoken out following Sterling's death.

Marcus Spears, a retired NFL player who attended LSU, wrote on Twitter in 2016 that he was "crushed" and "heartbroken" by Sterling's shooting in "the city that raised [him]." Tyrann Mathieu, now a safety for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, posted to Twitter last year simply "#AltonSterling."

Likely, LSU wanted to ensure athletes’ positions on the case wouldn’t be confused for the university’s, said Ari Cohn, director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Individual Rights Defense Program.

But while these athletes do serve as ambassadors for a university -- particularly one as sports-centric as LSU -- they still retain rights to speak out as private citizens, Cohn said.

“I don’t think a reasonable person would interpret student athletes’ remarks on contemporary political issues as an official position of the university,” Cohn said.

The university stands to gain quite a bit in the public eye should it come out full tilt supporting athletes’ free speech rights, especially since campus First Amendment issues are so in the spotlight now, Cohn said.

Dan Lebowitz, executive director for the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, at Northeastern University, expressed a similar sentiment.

LSU could enhance its brand by encouraging conversation about national problems, like the conversation around civil rights, Lebowitz said. He called it “odd” that a higher education institution would issue a warning about participating in free speech -- adding that such a statement could be problematic.

“When anyone thinks about a brand ahead of social responsibility, that seems to be problematic,” Lebowitz said. “Athletes in this day and age have come to understand to their platform, understand the power of that platform.”

LSU should empower its athletes to embrace their leadership role, much like the National Basketball Association understands and encourages their athletes to promote social justice, Lebowitz said. Athletes like LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers have spoken out about racial bias and the Black Lives Matter movement, he said.

Restrictions on free speech, congruous with institutional racism, have become a recurring pattern among National Collegiate Athletic Association institutions, Lebowitz said. A well-documented case dating back to the 1970s involved the “Syracuse 8,” a misnomer for the nine black Syracuse University football players who boycotted the season in protest of racial injustices they perceived.

Now, with advancing technology, such controls on free speech manifest in subtler ways -- like on social media.

In 2012, the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville paid for a service to monitor the social media of their athletes and flag certain terms -- like “porn” and “gay,” which earned the institutions wide rebuke.

Per LSU’s 2015-16 student athlete handbook, the university’s social media policy states that athletes are expected to display “responsibility and maturity” on social media.

“Information, pictures and other content posted on these sites is available to the general public … and may have implications for your personal safety and image, the image of your teammates and coaches, and the image of LSU, as well as future career and professional opportunities. Any actions which are in violation of LSU’s policies for student conduct or that are otherwise deemed inappropriate and/or compromise the image of the student athlete, LSU athletics or LSU are unacceptable,” the handbook reads.


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