Is social networking a good thing for professional sport?

SIR Alex Ferguson spoke for a generation of coaches when, on the eve of the season, he surveyed the wreckage of a digital indiscretion that cost his most senior defender Rio Ferdinand £45,000.

The Twitter logo on a computer screen
The Twitter logo on a computer screen

SIR Alex Ferguson spoke for a generation of coaches when, on the eve of the season, he surveyed the wreckage of a digital indiscretion that cost his most senior defender Rio Ferdinand £45,000.

“I don’t understand Twitter,” he harrumphed. “I don’t know why anyone should get involved in it.”

Sir Alex is in his eighth decade, but his disdain cannot be traced to his birth certificate. Sixty-year-old Martin O’Neill branded the social network “crazy” last season, while 51-year-old Alan Pardew reckons Tweeting footballers have given the Press “a field day” and managers an unwelcome new headache.

Perhaps they have a point. It is not hard to see why professional sport enjoys such an uneasy relationship with the social network when the number of digital scandals seems to multiply by the week.

In the two years since Twitter ballooned from an obscure site beloved by tech bloggers in California to the must-have accessory for any athlete, it has served up some pretty juicy sporting stories.

Think Kevin Pietersen slamming the England management and Joey Barton’s extraordinary rant against Mike Ashley last year – each offering the sort of unvarnished opinion that has hitherto stayed away from the public eye.

This weekend, for example, the North East sports fan could feast on some easy controversy served straight up to their smart phone.

James McClean’s expletive-laden Tweet bemoaning Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni was the obvious one, but there were other nuggets of local interest – from Demba Ba retweeting a Newcastle fan’s comment branding his international manager “mad” for leaving him on the bench to Nile Ranger posting a picture of a police car in his wing mirror with the message ‘You gotta b kidding me!”

The capacity to land yourself in trouble is seemingly endless, yet sports stars maintain their online presence in spite of the obvious dangers. In the case of McClean and Danny Simpson, they have even come back to Twitter after a period in exile after deleting their accounts. Just why would they put themselves through it?

Twitter is so appealing because it’s so easy. Compared to the laborious process of compiling a blog post and then going through the time-consuming process of uploading it, Twitter is the height of convenience. It’s easy, it’s instant and, most intoxicatingly of all, it offers athletes a unique platform to influence the sporting agenda.

Besides, sports people understand that Twitter – much to the chagrin of Sir Alex and company – is here to stay. Burying your head in the sand not only makes you a little bit irrelevant in the digital era, it also ignores the huge amount of good that the social network does.

Thanks to Twitter, for example, sport no longer feels like a closed shop. The worrying divide between athlete and supporter – which has opened into a chasm thanks the rising salaries of football’s top earners, for example – can be partially bridged through a Twitter or Facebook account.

Everyone is talking about McClean this week.

But look at Carlos Cuellar, the Sunderland defender who last month invited supporters to join him for coffee. And how about Peter Løvenkrands, who raised thousands of pounds for the Alzheimers Society through a Twitter auction?

Away from the athletes themselves, fans are forging friendships and alliances that can be powerful forces for good. Sports administrators and even journalists are held accountable for the decisions we make and the things we write, and as inconvenient as that might be at times, it can only be viewed as a positive if it helps bring sport back to the people.

The democratisation of sport is long overdue, and if we have to put up with a few brainless missives from those with too much time on their hands, it is a price worth paying for the greater good it does.

Those who regard social media as completely negative are missing the point, anyway. It is not Twitter at fault here – it is the person behind the account who holds the power.

Barton, for example, is a classic case of someone who utilises the social network ferociously. Barton told a national newspaper that Twitter was brilliant because it allowed him to tell his own story without having it filtered through the Press and the vested interests of reporters carrying out interviews.

It earned him a column in the Big Issue, a spot on Newsnight and a feature in the Guardian in which he strolled through the Tate Modern giving his opinions on modern art. What Barton perhaps didn’t understand was that his incessant Tweeting was also giving the game away – revealing why he had such a toxic reputation in the game.

Before he joined Twitter, we had all heard the whispers about how his forthright demeanour had made him a difficult dressing-room presence but, without anyone prepared to go on the record, it was difficult to quantify exactly what the problem was with Barton.

As soon as he joined the social network, he laid bare where the issues were and revealed the true Barton. Supporters who might have accused the Newcastle hierarchy of unfairly singling him out over his contract saga got a fuller idea of why United now viewed him as more trouble than he was worth.

Belatedly, sport is beginning to respond to social media’s growing influence.

A fortnight ago, Newcastle United’s players were given a presentation on social media that outlined the dos and don’ts of Twitter and Facebook, and similar sessions have been going on up and down the land for every professional outfit.

The Premier League issued guidelines over the summer on the correct usage of social media, while the Professional Footballers’ Association has devoted a section on their website to reminding members how to use it.

It is heartening to hear that clubs are not prohibiting their players from using it, which would be a counter-productive move. The digital revolution is upon us – and sport needs to adapt or suffer the consequences.

Twitter can be positive

WENDY Taylor is Newcastle United’s head of media. She believes that Twitter can be a force for good if applied correctly.

“At Newcastle United, we’re supportive of players who wish to tweet. We recognise the positive value it can have in opening up that direct conversation that players and the club have with supporters.

“If used in the right way it can be a really positive thing. Many players have created a community of fans who have benefited from a greater insight into their lives, and that can reflect positively on them and on the club.

“Peter Løvenkrands used Twitter really well to raise awareness and funds for his charity efforts. It gave supporters a real sense of what he was doing and why he was raising that money.

“There are obvious pitfalls that we continue to remind players about and give advice to help them avoid. They’re common sense rules really; not to reveal sensitive information or to post negative or derogatory statements on the site.

“But with a bit of common sense it is a powerful tool that can help strengthen the relationship between supporters, players and the club.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer