This commentary was originally featured in the Orlando Sentinel on March 19, 2018.
Donald De La Haye, a former University of Central Florida student, was removed from the UCF football team and lost his scholarship because he posted popular YouTube videos.
De La Haye was a model athlete and upstanding member of the UCF community. A marketing major, he also had a passion and talent for amateur filmmaking.
Both before and during his time at UCF, on his own time and at his own expense, De La Haye made videos on a wide range of subjects — from popular culture to personal commentary on life as a college student. Because of his entertaining posts, De La Haye built a strong following on social-media sites, including Instagram and YouTube. That following was big enough to earn him ad revenue from YouTube.
Yet rather than reward a creative, entrepreneurial student for using his education and talents, UCF punished him by kicking him off its football team and rescinding his scholarship. The school took this action to comply with draconian NCAA rules that prohibit students from receiving compensation when using their names or athletic talent.
Or imagine a journalism student who lost her scholarship because she wrote news articles for the local paper.
Or a kinesiology student who posted profitable workout videos on the Internet.
Just like De La Haye, these students would be doing exactly what we expect our universities to do — train students to put their skills and talents to productive use in a way that betters themselves, their future careers, and their communities.
We would assume, unlike De La Haye, these students would not be punished.
Yet that is precisely what UCF did in this case. Rather than challenging the NCAA’s ridiculous rules prohibiting student entrepreneurship, UCF opted to heed the NCAA’s demand that it silence De La Haye’s free speech — a plain First Amendment violation protected by the United States Constitution.
UCF is a public university that must respect its students’ constitutional rights, regardless of what a private, voluntary organization may mandate. But, some have claimed that UCF had no choice but to comply with NCAA rules. Perhaps those who buy this argument might feel differently if the NCAA were to issue a statement saying that women should no longer receive athletic scholarships (as was largely the case prior to the passage of Title IX in 1972)? Would anyone expect UCF to support an NCAA policy under those circumstances?
It is also a fallacy to argue that UCF did not stop De La Haye from speaking; it only gave him a choice between publishing his videos and playing football. Public universities cannot promise a scholarship and then condition that on an athlete forfeiting his rights. That is an unconstitutional condition that violates the First Amendment as much as prohibiting speech outright.
In a system that exploits the hard work of some people to benefit those not doing the work, there will always be those who have a vested interest in protecting the status quo — even if that means violating the rights of others.
De La Haye is an incredibly talented filmmaker and communicator. He has amassed more than 500,000 followers on YouTube — people who want to see what he has to say. He is also an incredibly talented kicker. He should not have been forced to make a choice between football and film.
Fortunately, in addition to his many talents, De La Haye also has courage to stand up for himself against powerful status quo forces, so that he and other student athletes won’t be punished for pursuing their passions.