Twitter: Friend or Foe?

Published 13 October 2009

By Jamie Horner and James Thorndyke, Ashfords LLP

Messages that were placed on Twitter, the internet networking site, recently by two high profile sports stars have landed both in hot water and have again highlighted the dangers of professional sportsmen and celebrities using electronic real time messaging as a way of communicating with their fans.

Sports stars that are already renowned for their frequent tweeting include seven time Tour de France Champion Lance Armstrong, British tennis ace Andy Murray, England footballers Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, former England Rugby Captain Will Carling, record breaking US Olympian Michael Phelps, NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal and professional snowboarder Shaun White (otherwise know as the "Flying Tomato").

As the use of networking sites, such as Twitter, by high profile sports personalities seems certain to increase, those individuals will become increasingly exposed to the career damaging risks associated with posting messages on such forums.

Armstrong, O'Neal, England Rugby International James Haskell and golfer Ian Poulter have all courted controversy recently following posts on their respective Twitter pages. The latest tweets involve Australian cricketer Philip Hughes and England striker Darren Bent.

Hours before the Australian team selection for the Third Ashes Test at Edgbaston was officially announced by Cricket Australia, Australian opening batsman Philip Hughes placed the following post on his Twitter page: "Disappointed not to be on the field with the lads today, will be supporting the guys, it's a BIG test match 4 us. Thanks 4 all of the support."

Hughes had, therefore, unwittingly disclosed that he hadbeen dropped for the Third Test before this had been officially announced by the Australian selectors. He was replaced in the team by all rounder and makeshift opener Shane Watson. It has been widely reported that serious discussions about this badly timed tweet subsequently took place between the Australian team management and Hughes behind a closed dressing room door but no formal action has been taken against him by Cricket Australia.

It remains to be seen whether his careless blogging will have any impact on his future selection for the Australian Cricket Team.

Hot on the heels of Hughes' tweet, ex-Tottenham Hotspur and England striker Darren Bent, used Twitter to express his displeasure at being removed from Tottenham’s tour of South-East Asia and the less than rapid progress of his proposed transfer to Sunderland, which has now been completed.

Amongst his posts Bent launched an expletive tirade against Daniel Levy, the Spurs Chairman. Despite issuing a public apology, Spurs viewed Bent’s outburst extremely seriously and proceeded to fine him two weeks wages, totalling £120,000, as well as requiring that he remove his Twitter page. The club have since introduced a policy requiring all players contracted to the club who use social networking sites to disclose this fact to the club in order to ensure that such an episode is not repeated. It is likely that other clubs will follow suit.

Bent has since commented that he believes that the press interest generated by his criticism of Levy on his Twitter page only served to speed up his transfer to Sunderland. It remains to be seen whether others will adopt the same approach with its inherent risks in a bid to speed up their transfer deal.

The hoax posts that were attributed to England batsman Ian Bell, who was called up to the England team for the Edgbaston, Headingly and Oval Ashes Tests following Kevin Pietersen's Achilles injury, have also highlighted the risk of cyber imposters posting potentially damaging tweets on the web. Tweets that were wrongly attributed to Bell included:

"Getting back to county cricket is just what i needed! Rebuild, regroup, refocus, reenergise, recharge, resolve, revenge."

"Forgot Ikea closes early on a sunday. Come on England!!!"

"Hope the weather is better these next two days - i want to wear my new sunglasses. We can still win this!!"

"I'm glad I'm not a weatherman, batting's hard enough"

"The Ashes big top moves on to Leeds! It's great being part of the circus - as long as I'm more lion tamer than clown!" 

The consequences of a casual or malicious Twitter could be significant. In addition to potential defamation issues and the likely impact on that particular individual's profile with his or her chosen sport, if an individual offended his or her club, team management and /or regulatory body, then disciplinary action could quite conceivably be taken against that individual which could ultimately result in a ban and/or financial penalty being imposed upon them. Also, sponsors of clubs events or individuals would surely not look fondly upon any outbursts, which are seen to bring their brand into disrepute. Depending on its timing and content, the terms of participation and sponsorship contracts could well be breached by a casual post. 

The legal ramifications of a misguided post by a sports star or indeeda cyber hoaxer could also be significant as litigation relating to social networking is on the rise. For example, earlier this year in the Queen's Bench case of Applause Store Productions Limited and Firsht v Raphael [2008] EWHC 1781, an individual was ordered to pay £22,000 to an old school friend after creating a libellous Facebook profile about him. The full impact of this case is yet to be seen, however, it could pave the way for further libel claims relating to Facebook and other social networking websites.

In America, the singer Courtney Love was sued by a fashion designer for allegedly defamatory statements made on Twitter and Facebook and recently, Horizon Group Management, a property management company, sued a former tenant to the tune of $50,000 for an allegedly defamatory ”Tweet”. 

As the impact of social networking continues to increase, it is likely that sports stars, and indeed "ordinary" users of such technology will have to exercise increasing caution when expressing their views. Although social networking can be an excellent way of gaining exposure to a worldwide audience, those using such forums as Twitter must consider the potentially serious consequences of engaging in such a means of self-promotion.