Referee decisions and tackles on Twitter, do players understand the offside rules of social media?

Published 18 January 2013 | Authored by: Laura Scaife

Perhaps ironic given that its kit logo is a bird, Norwich City winger Robert Snodgrass has risked disciplinary action after criticising referee Mark Clattenburg on Twitter. Clattenburg was the centre of attention at Upton Park after awarding the Hammers a penalty for an innocuous looking shirt pull by Ryan Bennett on Winston Reid inside the opening two minutes. The decision left City’s players and boss Chris Hughton fuming, while he also failed to award a free-kick following Carlton Cole’s foul on Alexander Tettey in the lead up to West Ham’s second goal. Snodgrass took to Twitter to unleash his fury at referee Mark Clattenburg following Norwich’s defeat, tweeting:

“The referee kills the game #gamesgone.

“If that’s a pen you will need to give 100 pens a season, small decisions change games. Win some you lose some. Great support again.”

The FA have since confirmed there will be no action against Snodgrass. The reason for this is that players and managers can criticise refereeing decisions so long as they do not imply any bias. The FA's social media rules state action may be taken for "comments about match officials which imply bias, attack the officials' integrity or which are personally offensive in nature". However, it does not always follow that Tweets sent in the hours or days post match will always be within the parameters of permissible comment or that players are actually aware where the FA drawn the line. 

Ryan Babel holds the dubious honour of being the first Premier League footballer to be charged by the Football Association due to postings on a social media site. Following a match between Manchester United and Liverpool, Babel retweeted (forwarding another person’s tweet) a photograph of the match referee, Howard Webb, which contained the comment:

“[a]nd they call him one of the best referees? That’s a joke”

The picture which accompanied the Tweet showed a digitally manipulated photograph of Webb which had been altered so that it appeared that he was wearing a Manchester United team shirt. Babel subsequently apologised and was fined £10,000 despite the fact that Babel merely re-tweeted the posting of another rather than authored the tweet himself. The sanction imposed could offer some insight as to the punishment which Cole may face for re-tweeting the post by @CollinR4 in addition to the punishments for his own direct postings.  Babel later apologised for his actions by Tweeting:

“My apology if they take my posted pic seriously. This is just an emotional reaction after loosing an important game”


Tackling the problem

Sometimes an apology isn’t enough, once the Tweet is sent, “the ball has already hit the back of the net” as such number of clubs have already responded to the challenges presented by players discussing match and club tactics by setting strict guidelines in relation to issues such as e.g. team selection, comments on fellow players or officials and transfer speculation.  However, while guidelines are in place, any policy is only likely to be as good as its enforcement, if this is not the case then there is no guarantee that such policies will be followed (see for example Joey Barton’s tweets (@Joey7Barton) for a number of examples of disputes with fellow players).

With the frequency of referee comments is increasing and more players are taking to Twitter, commanding massive numbers of followers, it is suggested that clubs need to set in place procedures to manage their player’s online presence and the content of posts which by association can be linked to their clubs. Surprisingly however, while the FA have recently mentioned the introduction of guidance for players on the use of social media and the Premier League having already produced their own guide, a number of professional sports clubs do not have an established social media policy either included in the playing contract or given to and agreed by the player. There is also a specific lack of addressing comments on referees decisions. When the risk of sanctions by the FA loom over how 140 characters of text are constructed in the cold light of day, it is suggested that clubs should consider the benefits of setting out a formal policy and also ensure that their players are aware of the governing bodies social media. Ideally this will be set our clearly and delivered to players in such a manner that they know exactly what they can and cannot comment on, encouraging them to as questions if they are unsure as to what is and what is not allowed. Social Media policies should not be as difficult to explain as the offside rule. If they are, then clubs need to take a half time break and go back to the whiteboard.



Knowing the rules is not the same thing as following them, especially post match when tensions can run high. As such, in terms of managing risk, in addition to having a policy it may be prudent for clubs to consider the implementation of blackout periods for a few hours before, during and after a game. An example of a situation which would have benefited from this involved a series of Tweets passing between Joey Barton, Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer after they were critical of Barton’s behaviour on the final day of the 2011/12 season. The incident saw Barton sent off and receive a 12 match ban. Barton also admitted during the exchange that he had deliberately tried to get a Manchester City player sent off which was one of the leading factors to him receiving the fourth longest match ban in the English games history. Players need to be aware that there are formal channels for challenging decisions and that Twitter cannot be used as a kangaroo Court. It is not necessarily that players may mean to criticise referees online and circumvent official channels for borderline decisions. It may be that players simply do not realise the severity of what they are posting or that they risk FA censure. A recent example of fan criticism, which spilled over into a player getting involved, started when in response to Luis Suarez following a hand ball controversy in their FA Cup win at Mansfield, Robbie Fowler Tweeted: 

Seriously anyone who thinks it was hand to ball rather than ball to hand needs to sort themselves out #hatersgonnahate”.

After a string of backlash Tweets such as such as “Should have taken your example and said it was a foul… still remember the penalty that was and wasn’t against Arsenal!” referring to an incident in March 1997 when Fowler famously urged Gerald Ashby to change his mind after awarding the Reds a penalty when he went down against Arsenal Goalkeeper David Seaman and “he cheated robbie simple as that get no luck hopefully the rat will break a leg”.  Fowler subsequently commented “I think the way he then knocked the ball in the net he assume it would be rules out. But if there is any criticism it should be at the referee not the player

The speed in which Twitter can spread news means that this single Tweet has now become a top news result on Google and runs the risk that referees may feel ill at ease when making decisions due to the criticism they can receive online, especially when high profile players raise the issue with their fans. It can also result in other media outlets commenting on their decisions when the FA are not involved. Moreover, if players engage in heated debates online with followers, it can result in players posting offensive comments towards fans in a “red-mist” moment which can result in damage to the clubs reputation.

Social media offers a previously unparalleled opportunity for engagement with fans and sponsors due the instantaneous access to significant part of the global population.  However, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook need to be handled carefully as part of a clubs (or individual players) digital strategy especially when risking sanctions from the FA. Specifically, there needs to be a clear explanations of the FA’s rules relating to commenting upon referees decisions and the clubs own personal expectations of their players. Perhaps the message is simple and it just needs to be communicated to players:

Don’t loose your head post match and pick up an iphone, you might loose your place for the next few matches. Give controversial comments the red card before you Tweet (see, simple and just 137 characters)


About the Author

Laura Scaife

Laura Scaife

Laura is an innovative thinker in the field of Social Media and has been extensively published on matters concerning compliance with e-commerce issues arising out of the Office of Fair Trading and Advertising Standard Agency guidelines as well as online revenue generation, defamation, electronic communications based offences, effective dispute settlement, business crisis management and reputational management.

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