England’s cricketers are the latest professional athletes to face the prospect of a ban from social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. It seems a drastic measure, and one which will upset the many followers of players such as Graham Swann and Kevin Pietersen, but sports organisations do seem particularly scared of social media.
News reports in recent days suggest the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is nervous that players will let slip locker-room secrets or Tweet in anger about coaches’ decisions. It has some reason to be twitchy about Twitter – England’s under-19 captain Azeem Rafiq Tweeted abuse about the coach after he was dropped for disciplinary reasons this summer, and last year fast bowler Tim Bresnan Tweeted in somewhat unsportsmanlike language over an unflattering photo posted online.
Now England players face the prospect of new contracts which could ban social media use for 2010-11, during the Ashes series in Australia. Curiously, the Aussies have indicated a more relaxed approach – even though they have had unfortunate social media experiences of their own – last year batsman Phil Hughes Tweeted that he had been dropped from the team, before that decision had been officially announced.
The ECB is not alone in its Twitter-phobia, of course. In the US, the National Football League (NFL) has a strict ban on Tweets during games – though players sometimes forget – and college football has followed the pro game’s lead. In Australian rugby league, meanwhile, Penrith Panthers last month became the first NRL team to ban its players from social networks.
But it’s hard to imagine this working in some sports. Would golf’s outspoken Tweeter Ian Poulter agree to be silenced during the forthcoming Ryder Cup? Hardly. And why should he deny his (as I write) near-million-strong army of followers the valuable insights into his game?
The fears of sports bosses are clear – players may complain about management, give away secrets or damage the organisation’s reputation. But huge numbers of sportspeople – Swann, Pietersen and Poulter are just three among many thousands worldwide – manage to use social media to great positive effect, engaging with their fans and boosting their profiles further.
Cat Douglas of Daemon Two makes the point superbly in a recent blog, with special reference to the Penrith Panthers case, and suggests such a ban could even have a negative impact on a player’s career.
Her view (mine too) is echoed by Australia’s cricket captain Ricky Ponting: “It is your job as international players to promote the game and be the best you can for the game. And if we can use social networks, if that brings people closer to the game, brings people through the gates to play, then that’s what it is all about…. you won’t see us banning our players from doing that sort of stuff.”
This is an amended version of a blog post originally written for Social Media Influence and published on August 24 2010.