Criticism, Reputation, Free Speech - Does Social Media Need to be Integrated into Codes of Conduct and Athlete Agreements?

Sport organizations are wondering if it is really necessary to address social media within their organizational policies and codes of conduct.  After all, isn’t it enough that the organization has a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account?   Doesn’t that count as social media engagement?

Yes, but

Using social media as a communication tool is a good step. Of course this use of social media should be prefaced by incorporating social media into the organization’s overall communications strategy. We know that social media should not be pursued lightly and without a clear idea of the purposes, audiences, messages, and methods.  But there is more that should be done. Consider the following real-life case example.

An athlete on a Canadian National Team recently tagged a friend of mine in a Facebook post. I don’t know this athlete and I was only made aware of his note because the act of ‘tagging’ my friend lodged an alert in my Facebook news feed.  I read the title and then I read the athlete’s post.  He had just returned from an international competition and he was writing a reflection about his experience.  The athlete was quite critical about his NSO.

Within his Facebook note, the athlete wrote:

“Our governing body thought we weren't good enough, not prepared enough, not enough to represent our country.”

“[We were] the only country in the [competition] not fully funded by our government. [We] did it on our own...everything.”

“Instead of respect and admiration for wearing your country’s colours, it was ridicule, insults, doubts and ill wishes. No support from the country, the government, or even our own [national sport] organization. No support at all.”

Essentially, this athlete has posted a public notice openly criticizing his NSO’s handling of a National Team.  The criticism was potentially seen by people who are friends with the author on Facebook (which could include other National Team athletes, young developing athletes, coaches, trainers, provincial team athletes, etc).  The athlete did not write with a full context (as might a news reporter) so the reader was left with the impression of an unsupportive and inactive NSO.

Certainly the NSO does not want this impression to spread – but the nature of Facebook as a social medium means that the athlete’s opinions will be heard by many people. The author tagged a bunch of his friends and teammates and, when you are tagged in a Facebook note, you definitely will read it because, presumably, it is about you or related to you in some way. If the author tagged 30 fellow athletes – then it is very likely that 30 athletes will have their opinions of their NSO tested by this Facebook note.

Some sport organizations may have reacted to the existence of this critical note by banning its athletes from using Facebook entirely. This is what the Saskatoon Blades attempted to do a few weeks ago. This is an unenforceable over-reaction. Following that incident, my colleague Rachel Corbett reflected that asking a young person to not use Facebook is like "asking them to not breathe".  We know that a better method of controlling athlete self-expression is to limit their topic(s) and language, rather than to muzzle them. A code of conduct or athlete agreement can be updated so that sanctions for improper conduct and communications on social media are included and can be addressed through a disciplinary process.

Other issues are raised by this post.  Should the organization demand that the athlete remove the offending communication? If the coach (as an employee of the NSO) saw the post, does he or she have a duty to report its existence to the NSO?  What steps can the organization take to minimize the impact of, or possibly refute, the views expressed in the athlete's critical post?

The longer that a sport organization remains disengaged from social media – the harder it will be to respond appropriately to potential issues that come with social media. In the case example above, the athlete's post remains up on Facebook and there was no apparent fallout or reaction from his NSO.  However, 13 National Team athletes were tagged in the post, 18 other people ‘liked’ the note, and there were over a dozen comments. At the very least, all of these readers now have a view of the organization that is irreparably tainted.

While social media integration with codes of conduct, athlete agreements, policies, and even risk management measures may seem like over-kill, a prudent and proactive organization will recognize the consequences of remaining disengaged from social media in these areas.

Kevin Lawrie
krl@sportlaw.ca

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