by Robert Henneke and Jon Riches
College athlete and YouTube star Donald De La Haye is an American success story. At the age of 7, Donald immigrated to the United States with his family from Costa Rica. As a teenager, he began posting online unique, creative videos of himself. He also was a skilled athlete, recruited by the University of Central Florida to be a member of its football program and earning a full-ride athletic scholarship.
But this success story has had some big bumps in the road.
De La Haye was kicked off the UCF football team and lost his athletic scholarship because videos on his “Deestroying” YouTube channel were popular enough to garner ad revenue. By his sophomore year, he had hundreds of thousands of YouTube followers, and he began to receive a modest amount of income from the ad revenue.
He offered to demonetize any videos that mentioned UCF football or his status as a student-athlete, but UCF responded that not only was De La Haye prohibited from receiving income from his talents; he was also prohibited from having any videos “based on his athletics, reputation, prestige or ability” on his YouTube channel.
Represented by the Goldwater Institute and Texas Public Policy Foundation, De La Haye sued UCF, claiming the university violated his free-speech rights when it took adverse action against him based on the non-offensive content of his social-media communications. De La Haye worked for years to build up his brand and marketing, and didn’t want to delete all his hard work. He described his work as “something that I’ve worked so hard for … Something that I have put blood, sweat and tears into.”
Fortunately, earlier this month, De La Haye settled his lawsuit against UCF, which will allow him to continue his education there. But even though this case is now in the books, his federal lawsuit exposed many hypocrisies in college athletics that could hold lessons for future student-athletes.
First, universities enforce the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s ban on students using their photographs, appearance or athletics reputations only when students are promoting themselves. But when other athletes, like a current UCF kicker, use social media to celebrate their successes on the field, public universities are happy to promote that student’s appearance and athletics reputation.
Second, while the NCAA or member universities may cite De La Haye’s receipt of modest income as violatng his amateur status, college athletics always seems to find a way to allow student-athletes to profit off themselves when it benefits the NCAA. Consider Kyler Murray’s $4.66 million baseball contract, Arike Ogunbowale’s competing on “Dancing With the Stars”; or a slap on the wrist when Johnny Manziel earned thousands of dollars by selling his autographs.
When it benefits college athletic programs, there always seem to be exceptions. But when students communicate about their own skills and talents, suddenly the sky is falling on the world of amateur sports.
As for the contention by some public schools that “the NCAA made us do it,” the state-run universities, not the NCAA, must comply first with the U.S. Constitution, and member universities have both the authority and the obligation to demand changes to NCAA rules that violate their students’ rights.
In denying UCF’s dismissal motion in this case last July, the Orlando federal district court found that De La Haye brought a valid legal claim against UCF for violating his constitutional right to free speech. But De La Haye decided to move on and has now agreed to a settlement that will allow him to seek readmission to UCF as a student, but not as an athlete.
He stood up for his rights and made his point: Sometimes you kick the field goal instead of try for the touchdown. Both put points on the board.
With over 900,000 YouTube followers now, De La Haye has a bright future; you’ll see him again on the gridiron “Deestroying” it.
Jon Riches is the Director of National Litigation at the Goldwater Institute. Robert Henneke is the General Counsel and Litigation Director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Both represent Donald De La Haye.
Cross-posted from the Orlando Sentinel.