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Twitter and Pro Athletes Revisited - When will you Learn?
Posted in Defamation

This is the second installment of my blog updates. The first was on the legal wranglings of the sale of Liverpool F.C. This is on Twitter and pro athletes.

In the wake of Liverpool striker Ryan Babel tweeting on a referee and being charged and fined by his league for "improper conduct" enter England and the West Ham strike of Carlton Cole's tweets on the friendly game between England and Ghana: "Immigration has surrounded the Wembley premises?  I knew it was a trap! Ha ha ha…. The only way to get out safely is to wear an England jersey and paint your face with the St. George's flag!"  Clang……...

Carlton claimed it was a joke.  Much like the fictional, "African Child" video of Russell Brand's alter-ego Aldous Snow in the comedy, "Get Him to the Greek", Cole's comment has done nothing for international relations and racial sensitivity.  He was fined 20,000 pounds and charged with improper conduct.  Interestingly, during the last World Cup, the England coach and famed disciplinarian, Don Fabio Capello banned all his players from Twitter and Facebook…. What a prophetic soul.

Lord Ousely, the head of "Kick it Out" (a soccer equity and inclusion campaign in the UK) commented: "We continually urge the responsible use of mediums such as Twitter, particularly due to their increasing accessibility and popularity. What can seem like harmless comments can be deemed offensive by others and lead to unwittingly reinforcing negative stereotyping, including racists ones.  We will work with all our partners to ensure that education on what is and what isn't unacceptable behavior is ongoing."

The Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) similarly issued a statement:

"The commission fully accepted the mitigation put forward on Carlton's behalf and his apology for any offence caused, however unintentionally.  A fine was imposed with a warning as to future conduct but no ban was enforced.  This case, along with the recent Ryan Babel case, highlights the needs for players to be vigilant when using social media.  It is ironic that at a time when players are being accused of being distant and out of touch with supporters that attempts to communicate can bear such potential sanctions.

The PFA holds the view that whilst the use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook can be useful and an inevitable communication vehicle in these times, clear guidelines needs to be applied.  We would advise players not to stop tweeting but to bear in mind that this is not an intimate private conversation but a medium open to a potentially wide audience."

In the wake of Cole's charge, his club is now considering putting clauses in to players' contracts to include responsible tweeting, while respecting individuals' rights to freedom of speech.  This is going to be an interesting issue which is just in its fledgling stages.  The take home remains the same - if you tweet, it's not just your business, it's everyone's.  And, the battle between fair comment and offside conjecture and poor taste continues not on the field of play which is the athlete's domain, but off the field in the realm of social media……."

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This blog is authored by members of the Litigation and Dispute Resolution Department. We follow new and interesting issues emerging in the legal and business communities. The wide range of experience among the members of our litigation group will provide a diverse and insightful examination of current legal trends and topics. Our goal is to provide a source of valuable information and insight on a wide variety of matters for our readers.

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