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Athletes use social media for better or for worse

13 Apr 2021   ·   

We live in a world where anybody’s ideas, opinions, likes and dislikes can be publicised by social media. What started out as a platform to talk to friends has become a global platform engaged with every sphere of life. Social media now encompasses every injustice, every remedy for every injustice and all shades of political opinion.

Sports players and fans are no different – they have as strong opinions as anyone and often have the popularity to influence very widely. Marcus Rashford’s UK campaign to end food poverty for children (#EndChildFoodPoverty) gained 4.2m followers and changed UK government policy to pay for lunches while children were unable to attend school. Marcus Rashford himself was recognised for his positive contribution by the honour of receiving an MBE (a medal given the by the Queen).

Sometimes the intention is to change the sport itself. Lewis Hamilton took the lead to make Formula 1 more diverse and inclusive by taking the knee before each race and changing the colour of his car to black. He has 21m followers who listen to his opinion.

Athletes are seen as role models for younger people and so they have a special responsibility on their social media channels. Sometimes athletes and other celebrities are held to unrealistic standards. Who doesn’t occasionally say something stupid, whether on or offline? This is beside the point. Athletes need to understand that, whether it’s fair or not, they are held to a higher standard than the average person. People are less forgiving when you make the slightest mistake if you are seen as a role model. In addition, controversies always make great headlines.

During the pandemic, while sport competitions were suspended, lots of athletes took to social media with competitions and challenges to connect with fans and to remind them to stay at home. Roger Federer invited everyone to hit as many volleys as possible against a wall as a challenge. Usain Bolt reminded his followers about social distancing with some humour. He posted a photo of his 100 metres Olympic victory in Beijing 2008 when he had the time to look back from the finish line.

The results are not always positive

Putting out your opinions on social media can be like thinking out loud. You can say something before you have thought about the issue which you come to regret. It’s inevitable that what is fashionable with your followers will be unacceptable to some other group.

Fans love it when athletes use social media properly by posting pictures of themselves in their private lives or celebrating in the locker room with their teammates, but when it’s done wrong, fans get very upset and wish they didn’t know so much about their hero’s private life. One rule which is often broken is “don’t criticise your own followers on social media”. Just because a fan is critical about your sporting performance or mistake on the field is not a reason to publicly wish to harm them. Social media can build players up but can also let them down very quickly.

We have some very clear examples of poor use of social media by athletes with serious consequences. The Australian swimming star Stephanie Rice lost a lucrative sponsorship deal from Jaguar due to a homophobic tweet. She also had to give up a luxury car that Jaguar had been letting her use. A football player from Switzerland, Michel Mortadella, was expelled from the London Olympics for posting a racist tweet about South Korean players. He made this comment shortly after his team lost to the South Koreans. The fact that social media can be so powerful that an athlete is missing games is a reminder of its power and how it can change sports for the worse.

The result is that the lucrative benefits of social media need to be weighed seriously against the potential risks. One example of a risk that is especially relevant in sports is the risk of being perceived as transphobic. Not all sports players agree that a trans woman should be able to participate in women’s sports on equal terms. Expressing this opinion on social media will likely provoke an intense backlash from trans activists and create pressure on clubs to terminate with these players.

These issues, where opinions are very polarised, test the ability of the club to strike a balance between free speech, the right to express even unpopular opinions, and so-called hate speech. Hate speech opinions are unacceptable because of the damage they can cause to civil society. In some countries this is a matter of law. There are laws protecting against discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation in many countries. In other cases, it is a question of moral philosophy. It cannot be right to deny historical events, such as the Holocaust, even if it is not explicitly mentioned in law.

The importance of education on social media

All of this adds a new dimension for sports players as well as managers of clubs. In addition to being experts on the game, they need to have a strong moral compass and a good sense of public opinion. Participation in sports has always had the intention of improving the quality of the mind as well as the body, but the consequences of getting it wrong have never been so public or so harsh. Young people participating in sports need education and advice from their clubs about the events and policy choices which are topical. One of the most elementary of these lessons is that people, particularly those who are in the public eye, should educate themselves about how social media works.

There has never been a period before where it was so important to be a concerned and informed citizen with an interest in improving the world. Sport people and fans have an obligation to be responsible citizens – their opinions matter and have consequences.

David Carratt


Building the future of the sports industry