Social media in sport

Published 27 November 2012

The reality is that social media now plays an increasingly fundamental role in a sportsperson's career. It offers them strategic and creative opportunities to further their personal agendas. At the same time, it provides a platform on which players can interact with fans on a level playing field allowing them to keep in touch with authentic opinions outside their sporting vacuum. At its best, social media can develop player exposure, raise public awareness, build brands, and ultimately enhance the sports industry's profitability.

Yet, whilst social media has tremendous potential to positively impact sportspeople, originations and fans alike, the risks associated with its misuse have too often outweighed its benefits. With the voracious appetite of a twenty-four hour news cycle, front and back pages are awash with ill-advised social media use by an array of sports stakeholders, often bringing their sport into disrepute and exposing themselves to disciplinary action. Of course Twitter is at the forefront of the social media maelstrom. It allows sportspeople, in a few words, to say what they think before 'cooling off' often resulting in vented anger towards both 'friends' and foes.

Twitter Gaffes

Recent examples of Twitter gaffes have supplemented the notion that social media, without appropriate policy controls, is more of a detriment to the sporting world than a boon.

Rio Ferdinand's use of social media landed him in hot water for his tweet describing fellow England teammate Ashley Cole as a "choc ice". This term, a perceived racial slur, resulted in Ferdinand being charged by the Football Association (FA) and the imposition of a £45,000 fine.

More recently, in connection with the FA investigation into the John Terry/Anton Ferdinand racial abuse saga, Ashley Cole resorted to Twitter to vent his frustrations towards its findings by tweeting "Hahahahaa, well done #fa I lied did I, #BUNCHOFTWATS". Following this outburst he was unsurprisingly charged by the FA, dropped for the England World Cup qualifier against San Marino and fined £90,000 for bringing the game into disrepute.

Viral Threat

The FA's swift action in these circumstances is certainly understandable given the reach that social media portals now possess.

The Premier League recently published that the aggregate number of Facebook likes for the League and its clubs is in excess of 60 million and the number of Twitter followers is in excess of 4.5 million. In the case of the players mentioned, Ashley Cole has in excess of 500,000 followers, whilst Rio Ferdinand's following exceeds 3.5 million. These figures emphasise the current intensity of social media engagement and show how quickly a derogatory comment can crystallise into internet immortality.

Additionally, it is crucial that sportspeople understand the viral danger that the "retweet" and the "like" pose to their reputations in the event of misguided tweeting. Ashley Cole's now infamous tweet, despite being quickly deleted, had close to 20,000 re-tweets. Twitter is now "the" breaking news outlet, and countless journalists are ready to pounce on anything that may pique readers' interest and waste little time in sending errant tweets viral for their readership's consumption.

It is the culmination of the above factors that now makes it crucial for sporting bodies to take informed action to both educate their players on both the benefits and risks associated with social media as well as sanctioning clear breaches of social media policy. However, the question remains as to how effective reprimands such as those taken by the FA against Messrs Cole and Ferdinand are in regulating inappropriate behaviour of their players on social media.

Social Media Policies

To develop a workable social media policy the key is for sports organisations to understand two principal factors: (1) what makes social media so compelling (not just for sports people but for society); and (2) in what sort of environment will sportspeople best respond to censure of their social media use.

What makes social media so compelling?

In short, social media offers athletes a voice. It transforms them from a two dimensional image on a screen to a multi-faceted character that relates and actively engages with fans. The most successful tweeters are those who lift the veil on the previously secret world of professional sport. It is this engagement that has made social media so attractive to brands and sponsors, entities which actively encourage social networking to such an extent that it is often included in athletes' endorsement contracts.

It is these characteristics that make a blanket ban on social networking unlikely to be effective. The likelihood is that complete bans will lead to a feeling that the sportsperson's voice has been removed. In an interview with the Sunday Times (in)famous tweeter Joey Barton said he considers that fines imposed for inappropriate tweeting are essentially a tax for being his own man.

Add to this the fact that, for the most part, sportspeople are young. They want to be active on social media because that is what young people do. There is little to be said for "blazers" burying their head in the sand and telling them to completely disengage with social media. To do so would equate to the square parent trying to dictate their teenager's musical tastes or Saturday night wardrobe.

What is the best environment to cultivate a policy?

The most empowering facet of many sports is the trust a team places in each of its individual members. Few things will hit a sportsperson harder than if they feel they have disappointed their team.

Sportspeople need to understand the unsettling nature that irresponsible tweeting can have, not only on them, but on their team. This is no better illustrated than by the Cole/Terry/Ferdinand fiasco where tensions within the England dressing room were no doubt exacerbated by their recklessness on Twitter and the ensuing media storm.

This needs to be borne in mind when drafting appropriate social media policies and the necessary reprimands for a potential breach. First and foremost players must 'buy in' to the policy; that is, players need to contribute to their own social media policy rather than have it merely imposed on them. This consultation should include not just first teams but also players at age group level who are both the future of the sport and a principal target market for the majority of social media platforms.

Next, particularly in sports where money is no object, the sanctions need to move away from fines to something which impacts players in terms of how they interact with their team. In their policies organisations must foster an ethos where players become answerable to their team mates in the event that they flout social networking rules.

Practical Steps

So where should organisations begin in terms of developing their own policy? In our view, the following should provide organisations with a framework from which a meaningful social media policy can be developed:

Accept that social media is now a part of modern sport. An outright social media ban is one option but organisations should recognise that social media can be a useful way for fans to connect with athletes on a level never before possible and enhance the reputations and profiles of clubs, players and sponsors

Educate athletes and staff. Get input on how they use social media and where they think the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie. Athletes need to know the consequences of their actions and where the risks lie. Equally important, they need to be taught the value of social media and how best to use it.

Make clear what is acceptable and what is not. Set out the consequences for a breach of the rules. Get buy-in from your players and make them answerable to each other: a code of conduct is much more powerful if it has been drawn up in collaboration with the players themselves rather than being imposed upon them.

Offer your players a social media adviser. There should be a point person for them to turn to for advice on a tweet and to answer any questions they might have.

In a crisis, rely on your social media policy. Take quick, decisive and consistent disciplinary action.

The FA policy

In the fall out from the Ferdinand/Cole proceedings the FA has announced that it will soon publish its first policy specifically focused on social media. This will form part of the recently introduced Code of Conduct for players. Although the policy is still being drafted, it is expected that players will be held to the same standards for social media that they have in other forms of public communication. Accordingly, "improper" comments will result in fines or other disciplinary action by the FA.

Of most interest is how the FA will ensure buy-in from its players and whether the new policy will properly seek to balance the opportunities provided by social media as well as its inherent risks.

Additionally, in terms of implementation, to be successful the new policy must be rolled out across all football age groups to ensure that up and coming generations are fully equipped to understand the power that each of their 148 characters can wield.


Any organisation that is not considering how to properly implement a social media policy is surely living in the dark ages. Social media is here to stay and any attempts to control its use must be based on engagement rather than paternalistic blanket bans.

It is only natural that there are teething pains in trying to adapt to social media as we are still very much in the "Wild West" of its genesis. There is great opportunity for organisations to build their own best practice in this area. The most successful organisations in this field will be those that can allow athletes the latitude to express themselves while trammeling their undeniable ability to say something that is frankly stupid.

Iain McDonald is an Associate in the Sports Team at Lewis Silkin LLP. Iain can be contacted on +44 (0)20 7074 8432 or by email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Ned Lewis is a Trainee in the Sports Team at Lewis Silkin LLP. Ned can be contacted 44 (0)20 7074 8026 or by email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

You can follow Lewis Silkin's Sports Team on Twitter (@SportsLS).


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