Guns, Athlete Behaviour, and Social Media

Published June 14, 2012

A recent story involving two Australian athletes underscores the difficulty that some Canadian National Sport Organizations (NSOs) may face leading up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London.

One Australian swimmer posted a picture, on his private Facebook account, of himself and another National Team teammate holding guns at a California shooting range.

Swimming Australia released a statement containing the following remarks:

  • “[Swimming Australia] in no way condones these photos, and does not condone the posting of inappropriate content on Facebook, Twitter or any social media platform”
  • “This is a timely reminder for athletes to be more responsible to themselves, the public with whom they engage through social media, and the reputation of the sport”.
  • “While what the boys did was not illegal, posting the photos on social networks encourages public debate, and that debate can be seen to have a negative impact on the image of the sport and their own image”

Swimming Australia also indicated there would be an internal hearing.

Parallel to that process, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) became involved and produced their own sanctions including the decision to send the athletes home from London immediately after they had competed in their events. The AOC also banned the two swimmers “from using social media, including Twitter, Facebook and blogging, for the Games' period of July 16 to August 15, 2012”.

Later, another statement released by the AOC claimed the athletes had been sanctioned for “breaching their team agreement as members of the 2012 Australian Olympic Team”.

For their part, the athletes have indicated that they will impose their own personal ban from social media from this point forward until the end of the Olympic Games. Some Australian commentators believed the AOC has overreacted.

There are important lessons that Canadian NSOs and Canadian athletes can take from this story.

First, the reaction by Swimming Australia to encourage responsibility and conduct an internal investigation took place in concert with the AOC enacting sanctions. The relationships between these two organizations could create jurisdiction problems or other issues if Swimming Australia, for whatever reason, did not agree with the AOC’s sanctions.

Second, there appears to be confusion between “inappropriate behaviour” and “inappropriate content” – is the AOC punishing the behaviour or the content? After all, shooting is an Olympic sport. The prevailing questions here are: Would the AOC have enacted these sanctions if the athletes had simply gone to the gun range and held the guns?  If not, what makes the content (a picture of the behaviour, posted publicly) punishable?

Finally, Swimming Australia has likely given athletes a definition of ‘inappropriate content’ in their athlete agreement or Code of Conduct. Prudent composition of these agreements, detailed definitions of any ambiguous terms, and athlete adherence to consistent language, would help prevent confusion and any appeals of discipline or sanction as a result of potential breaches of the agreements.

What other lessons can Canadian sport organizations draw from this experience?

1.    Make sure you have either a Social Media Use Policy for athletes or, preferably, include references to social media use in your written agreements with athletes.

2.    Connect ‘inappropriate content’ with ‘inappropriate behaviour’ – or distinguish between them. Your NSO would be alright with athletes showering but would not be alright with the athletes posting nude pictures of themselves showering. The behaviour is appropriate - but the content is not appropriate for distribution.

3.    Determine a standard for promotion of potentially controversial behaviour. Though your NSO may be alright with athletes drinking at a bar, and your NSO may be alright if someone else took a picture of an athlete drinking at a bar, your NSO may *not* be alright with athletes promoting (via their public social media accounts) their own drinking activities. Such promotion may cause damage to the image of the organization or the sport.

4.    The AOC sanctioned the swimmers for “breaching their team agreement”.  NSOs and athletes should know the Canadian Olympic Committee’s policy for athletes' social media use (however it may be written in the COC Athlete Agreement or Code of Conduct) and what behaviour and/or social media use would constitute a breach of that agreement.

5.    What powers does the COC have over athletes’ social media use? The AOC banned these two athletes from social media use. Does that extend to personal use? Viewing Facebook without liking or commenting on postings? Remember, athletes must agree to their own behavioural restrictions and, since social media is still so new, athletes can have a significant voice in the development and implementation of this part of the athlete agreement. Though an athlete may agree to significant behavioural restrictions, should the athlete also agree to limit his or her personal communication in such a strict fashion?

6.    How does the COC policy fit together with your NSO’s policy?  In the Australian example, it seems as if the timeline involved a Swimming Australia investigation that was not even completed before the AOC stepped in and enacted its own sanctions. In Canada, which body would take the lead for sanctions and how would this approach be communicated among the parties?


For any athletes or NSO executives reading this post, we encourage you to find your own athlete agreements, find your agreement(s) with the COC, and determine whether or not the situation that occurred in Australia could also occur here in Canada, to you, and to your organization. If you’re unhappy with your determination – feel free to contact us – and perhaps we can help.

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