Athletes, Clubs, and the Social Media Minefield
Social media brings sport fans ever closer to those they idolise and support. Yet, for athletes and clubs, it often presents a minefield of distraction, potential faux pas and scandals waiting to happen.
So what help is available to guide athletes through the social media landscape? SportsLawyer Principal, Paul Horvath, takes a look at the legal pitfalls social media presents and offers a guide for athletes seeking to avoid them.
From the tweet that cost swimmer Stephanie Rice a lucrative sponsorship contract with Jaguar, to the notorious pre-Olympic image of her teammates Nick D’Arcy, and images of Kenrick Monk posing in a US gun shop, athlete behaviour often frames our discussions about social media and sport.
Yet the issues posed by social media are far more complex than a few ill thought-out posts. Nor are they limited to elite athletes – they also encompass fan-backlash, harassment, cyber bullying, privacy, and defamation.
Individuals using social media are each involved in the publication of materials that, even when taken down, are very permanent.
A public post on Facebook or Twitter can be rapidly reproduced, snowballing from a single message to an Internet event, even where the post is deleted quickly. This can be particularly concerning where an official or opponent is singled out for criticism and then becomes the victim of cyber bullying.
Consequently, national and state sporting organisations need to ensure that they have effective and strategic social media policies in place.
The Australian Sport Commission (ASC), the nation’s primary sports administration and advisory agency, has facilitated this process through specific provisions of its Member Protection Policy (MPP).
The MPP is reinforced by Member Protection Information Officers (MPIOs) who are trained to provide policy information and support regarding contraventions and complaints. It highlights the personal toll that cyber harassment can have – not to mention the potential for it to impact performance and reputation.
The MPP provides an adaptable template from which organisations can set out their own policies in relation to cyber bullying and social media. Recommendations include:
- Avoiding use of personal information in social media channels;
- Avoiding offensive, provocative or hateful language;
- Exercising judgment;
- Never publishing when emotional, upset or intoxicated;
- Seeking a person’s permission before posting their picture on a social networking forum;
- Never commenting on, or speculating about, rumours; and
- Always using social network forums to add value and promote the sport in a positive way.
These may seem logical, yet sporting organisations continue to struggle in an ever-expanding social media landscape. As a result the MPP has not been without its critics.
One issue is clarity – how to ensure that social media policy can be followed and easily understood.
Finding capable MPIO’s to facilitate member understanding of policy is not always an easy task and the range of issues faced are complex and sometimes highly personal.
As many high profile examples illustrate, the instantaneous nature of social media and the intensity with which athletes and fans approach the sports they love, continue to cause problematic online interactions.
It’s increasingly important that sporting organisations also realise that strong policies will be ineffective without a culture to support them.
The bottom line? It’s more vital than ever that sporting organisations educate themselves and their athletes about the legal, social and ethical ramifications that social media might have for them.
Have a legal question about social media and sport? Get in touch with SportsLawyer.