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Athletes Fined Over Tweets in the U.S. and in Europe

By Marie-Andree Weiss

A British soccer player playing for the French Olympique de Marseille team, Joey Barton, was suspended last week over tweets directed at Thiago Silva, a Brazilian player from rival team Paris Saint Germain. The sentence was handed down by the National Ethics Committee of the French Soccer League which found, rather surprisingly, that calling a player an "overweight ladyboy" and asking whether he was "Pre-Op or Post-Op" were inappropriate but not homophobic. Barton also called Thiago Silva a "pussy" and a "FatBoy". Inappropriate indeed, and completely devoid of any sportsmanship.

Joey Barton has often voiced negative comments about fellow players on Twitter, using the micro-blogging site as a platform to broadcast his opinions to his two-million plus followers, making him one of the most successful athletes on social media.

Many Athletes Have Twitter Accounts

It is now common for athletes to have a Twitter account, but not all of them are as prolific as Barton, nor, fortunately, as rude. In the U.S., many NFL, MLB, and NBA athletes have Twitter accounts, and social media use is even encouraged by their professional associations. Several baseball teams are organizing social media nights, inviting fans to live tweet from the stadium and showcasing their tweets on big screens. Following the Twitter account of a favorite player allows fans to gain some understanding of his or her personality or to learn more about his or her involvement in charities, which in turn, benefit the overall public image of the team.

However, Twitter is not a placid media, and firing a 140-character message while angry is easy.

Fast Pitched Tweets

The Cy Young winner and star pitcher of the Tampa Bay Rays, David Price, two of his teammates, and one MLB empire were all fined $1,000 after an incident that happened on April 28th during a game against the Chicago White Sox. According to David Price, MLB umpire Tom Hallion told him, after calling one of his pitches a ball, "Throw the ball over the [expletive] plate." The Rays dugout reacted to whatever was said and Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson was ejected from the bench by Hallion.

Tom Hallion reacted after the game, telling the press that David Price was a liar, and that he had only told him to throw the ball. David Price reacted to that statement on Twitter, tweeting: "Think our entire dugout would ERUPT cause an ump told me to throw the ball over the plate? No, I'm sorry that wouldn't happen #accountability."
David Price is an enthusiastic Twitter user and he regularly posts from his @DAVIDprice14 account to his over 155,000 followers. He also posted on April 28th: "Someone give me the definition of a coward please" and "1. I am not a liar 2. I would not make that stuff up 3. My own dad doesn't speak to me that way 4. Again I am not a liar #accountability" and tweeted that teammate Jeremy Hellickson was ejected because he "[h]ad my back after what everyone in dugout heard what the ump said."

Jeremy Hellickson tweeted the same day from his Twitter account: "There's only one person lying about all this and his name starts with a T and rhymes with pom." Pitcher Matt Moore also tweeted on April 28th his opinion about what happened: "Lies! lies i tell you! RT @TBTimes_Rays: Umpire Hallion said to Price: "I said, "Just throw the ball." That's all I said to him'" and "Unbelievable someone would mis remember so quickly. Stay in your lane. Nobody cares what you have to say. #tom."

Why were the Rays players fined?

Social Media Policies of Sports Organizations

It was because their tweets had breached the MLB social media policy, first published in March 2012. The policy prohibits players from "[d]isplaying or transmitting [c]ontent that questions the impartiality of or otherwise denigrates a Major League umpire." The social media policy is enforced, and a player violating it may be disciplined by his Club or the Commissioner in accordance with Article XII of the Basic Agreement, which recognizes that a player may be subjected to disciplinary action for just cause.

The NFL and the NHL both have social media policies which prohibit players from tweeting during a game. The social media NFL ban starts 90 minutes before a game, and ends once the media interviews are over. The NHL Social Media Policy for League and Club Personnel, first issued in 2011, bans social media posts two hours before the start of a game until the end of all post-game media obligations. Players are advised to exercise good judgments before posting.

Social Media is Just Another Media

Lack of sportsmanship is not illegal, but defamation and invasion of privacy are. In that regard, social media is just another media. This was acknowledged by the International Olympic Committee Social Media, Blogging and Internet Guidelines for participants and other accredited persons at the London 2012 Olympic Games. It stated that social media posts "should at all times conform to the Olympic spirit and fundamental principles of Olympism as contained in the Olympic Charter, be dignified and in good taste, and not contain vulgar or obscene words or images," and noted that social media users can also be personally liable for any defamatory, obscene, or proprietary commentary, or commentary intruding upon the privacy of another. (http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Games_London_2012/IOC_Social_Media_Blogging_and_Internet_Guidelines-London.pdf )

Indeed, posting on Twitter that somebody is a liar or implying that somebody else is a transvestite may have legal consequences, regardless of whether one's employer has a social media policy. In the Joey Barton case, Thiago Silva and his Club had stated that they reserved their right to take legal action. Being called a 'liar' on social media is a cause of action for defamation in the U.S.

If anything, social media policies may play an educational role for all players, but especially for younger ones who may not have the resource of family guidance as they suddenly become famous. Watching their older colleagues be fined or benched over tweets may be the learning experience needed for the next generation (a/k/a next season) of athletes to demure their tweets.

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