A little less conversation, a little more action please… A tweet too far?

July 26, 2012 in Features

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Social networking used to be a platform for procrastinating teenagers to exchange YouTube clips of You Me At Six, for relationships to be started and broken at the click of a button, and for notifying the world that you’ve passed your driving test or met Jeremy Kyle. But, as Twitter rolls through its sixth year of existence, motives for usage of what is fast becoming the most popular social medium on the web are ever-changing, and in particular, in the vast cauldron of opinion that is football. But just how is Twitter influencing football and the people whose job it is to set the examples to the next generation?

The outspoken nature of social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter offer encouragement to people to voice their opinions. However, whilst freedom of speech is to be expected in a sphere of communication as large as Twitter, there must be a limit to what can be said. Members of the public are able to express their feelings towards players, journalists and fellow supporters in what is all too often a tactless manner. Moreover, footballers are often guilty of purveying their views without thinking of the possible consequences beforehand. Of course, it is impossible to prevent rude words from escaping into the public domain and it is unrealistic to suggest those foul-mouthed nomads should be reprimanded, but footballers and sportspeople in general have a more important responsibility to uphold than your average Joe.

Being in the public eye can be viewed in two ways; a chance to communicate politely with friends and fans or the more unsavoury path of ridicule and abuse either towards or in the eye of people who possess the authority to punish. Examples are there for us all to see. Joey Barton is the most notable pioneer for the candid footballer, often voicing his ‘no regrets’ approach to his on-field antics and attempting to convince all his followers that he is not an angry person. Aside from football, cricketers Kevin Pietersen and Azeem Rafiq, to name but two, have come into contact with the authorities over their over-zealous approach to criticising team selection on Twitter. Rio Ferdinand’s ‘choc-ice’ comment to Ashley Cole has also fuelled debate over how sportspeople use Twitter to interact with their orb of socialites.

It may be pedantic to suggest that footballers shouldn’t be allowed to express their inevitably strong opinions in the eye of so many people, but one has to remember that these people are the role models for millions of spectators and admirers around the world. Whilst they are human beings with a right to speak out like you and me, their audience is far wider and far more attentive to what they have to say. Much of the talk inside newsrooms and in the papers is in some way reactive to what a Premier League star has said to an opponent or a supporter, and the object of those talking points is often negative. The effect it has on football as a whole may not be visible, but the consequences may prove to have a heavy detriment further down the line.

People are becoming more and more obliged to send abusive tweets in response to 140 characters worth of what they see to be nonsensical or offensive in some way. Moreover, footballers feel the need to respond in a similar manner and nothing is solved by that. If making tomorrow morning’s headlines is the incentive, then most of the time conflict is successful. But in ensuring football remains a healthy talking point off the field its representatives are slowly failing. What can be done?

Sanctions are already in place to safeguard against situations spiralling out of control. Of the aforementioned names, Kevin Pietersen was fined an undisclosed fee for demeaning a commentator, Azeem Rafiq found himself short of £500, sacked as England under-19 captain and dropped from the side, and Joey Barton has had brushes with internal law too. In the case of members of the public, Liam Stacey, a student from Swansea University, was imprisoned after racially abusing Fabrice Muamba in the aftermath of his horrifying cardiac arrest on the pitch at White Hart Lane. Visibly a more serious offence than any other that has been brought to light, but a measure of how seriously something as futile as a tweet can be taken. The fact of the matter is, unless incidents turn into police matters, it is up to one person and one person only to ensure dignity is preserved - the instigator themselves.

Heat of the moment will always prevail over rational thinking, especially in a day and age where so much is at stake for footballers. Reputation, money and support more than anything and when one doesn’t agree with being dropped, to use a common example, it is hard to keep reactive feelings bubbling up inside. All that Twitter has provided is a platform to outburst. If we’re not careful, tweets will come to have more authority and more importance than people themselves.