Defamation and Social Media - He's the Worst Coach Ever!

What would you do if a coach in your organization showed you a player-created Facebook group that insulted the coach?  There are many of these groups in existence.

One group, when this article was originally posted, was titled “Larry Thornburg is the worst coach ever!”.  The description of the group claims that Coach Thornburg is a bad coach who unreasonably benches players and has questionable game management tactics.  The coach is described as a “tyrant idiot” and “flat out idiot”.   Wall posts by people on the page claim that he is “pompous and racist” and that he is responsible for the worst part of a player’s high school experience.

Although hurt feelings from such acts as calling the coach an idiot, do not necessarily amount to “defamation”, the legal definition of libel (libel refers to written defamation – as opposed to slander which is verbal defamation) does include provisions to protect a person from unfair comments that would jeopardize future employment or earning potential in that person’s field.  The posts of the Facebook page, taken together, would likely make it difficult for Coach Thornburg to find employment elsewhere.

What a mess for the sport organization!  What could have been done to prevent this situation from occurring?  Should the organization have demanded the players remove the offending Facebook page? Threaten to penalize the players who commented or who were members of the group?  Would the organization have the authority to take such action?

There is an analogous case currently working its way through the Canadian court system.  The case, brought by two students at the University of Calgary who were reprimanded for posting allegedly negative comments about a professor on a Facebook group, addresses whether or not the University has the jurisdiction to reprimand students for invoking their ‘right to criticize’ and whether or not proper procedure for discipline was followed.  Though there are a number of issues involved with the case, the University’s lawyers argue the comments about the professor are defamatory.  The lawyers claim that the University has the authority to discipline students because the comments were about the competency of one of its professors and were posted on a public forum.  The University's lawyers also claim that the two students are responsible for every allegedly defamatory statement posted on the group – regardless of author.

[March 2011 Update - The Case was completed in late 2010]

Interestingly, cases in the USA concerning defamation on Facebook are being credited for the introduction of a new US federal law that limits corporate defamation lawsuits against citizens (Link).

The students’ case against the University of Calgary, as well as the Facebook group about Coach Larry Thornburg (incidentally – there are many, many player-created Facebook groups about a ‘worst coach’ or a ‘terrible coach’), are two more examples that indicate young people may not be fully aware of the public nature of Facebook.

However it may be more likely that students ARE aware of the “consequences” of posting potentially defamatory comments on Facebook and they are evidently prepared to go as far as to challenge, in court, any organization-sanctioned reprimand.

Sport organizations need to be aware of these possible developments in social media.  Are players defaming one of your coaches on Facebook?  Is your organization’s executive being hammered on Facebook for an unpopular decision?   Are your policies about athlete conduct and behaviour being deliberately ignored or flaunted?

Keeping informed about social media (both its benefits and drawbacks) is a very necessary challenge for sport organizations.

Originally published: Centre for Sport and Law Newsletter (2010) Vol. 6(3)

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