In April, U.S. soccer star Abby Wambach was arrested and charged with misdemeanor DUII (driving under the influence of intoxicants). Alejandro Bedoya, midfielder for the United States men’s national soccer team, used social media to respond, mocking Wambach through a series of tweets.
“@FoxSoccer must’ve been a foreign American player’s fault…….” Bedoya’s first tweet read. It was a jab at previous comments Wambach made about foreign-born members of the men’s national team. The tweet quickly sparked a back and forth between Bedoya and assorted U.S. Soccer fans who both praised and denounced the athlete’s comments.
Bedoya’s Twitter account is open for public viewing and is full of his personal thoughts and opinions. Though his opinions are freely his own, they do reflect on the teams and organizations he represents. FC Nantes, Bedoya’s club in France, had no particular reason to worry about these specific tweets. However, U.S. Soccer’s communications staff likely took pause when a single tweet turned into a heated exchange, and was later picked up by major news outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated.
In this Age of The Internet, the communications staffs of professional sports organizations include both media and social media coordinators. These coordinators must be in tune not only with the team’s players’ activities, but also with the way staff, owners and the surrounding media professionals’ use social media.
So monitoring the online activity of the athletes and team owners a social media coordinator represents is, in fact, in their job description. Twitter includes a list feature, so teams can collect the tweets from their staff, players and owners in one convenient place. Having tweets sent directly to their phones keeps them constantly updated on what information is coming in or going out.
Of course everyone can (mostly) do as they please on the internet, but when representatives of a team go “rogue”, the messages often conflict with external communication. At the tail end of 2015, Jermaine Jones took to Instagram and Twitter (and then Instagram again) to allude to, and then criticize, a move away from the New England Revolution, well before the club made any mention of a new contract offer. There was radio silence in response to the player and his messages, only broken by the Revs’ statement of his subsequent transfer.
Social media is a place of expression. But while a fan can criticize, berate or generally present any negative or contentious opinion, a player, owner or team representative oftens weighs risk vs. reward in terms of that type of public expression. Team owners can go “rogue” much like their players, but often face different penalties. When Portland Timbers’ owner Merritt Paulson tweeted his disgust over the officiating of a 2015 Timbers’ match, he was fined for his publicly critical comments. A player, however, may proceed more cautiously, fearful of finding themselves benched or suspended.
Major League Soccer and its individual clubs have fairly public takes on media and social media training for the players and club coordinators. During preseason, the rookies attend two sessions: first at the MLS draft combine and then again with their clubs once they join them.
These trainings are meant to help players realize that the way they promote themselves on social media can affect how the public views them. The 2015 #MLSSoshie Awards is a testament to this: rewarding players for their positive and consistent social content across the League. With categories like ‘Family Matters’ and ‘#BFFs’, the League highlights players being mindful of what they’re posting through a ‘bragging rights’ title competition. Sporting Kansas City’s Dom Dwyer, reigning #MLSSoshie champion, has been a fan favorite on Twitter and Instagram long before his record-breaking season with the club.
The immediate interactivity of social media has its positives and negatives for players. Social media gives a voice to those who otherwise could not and would not be heard. In what other way can fans praise their favorite player’s every move? How else can supporters taunt their rival’s players? With the landscape of today’s digital world, every athlete with a phone and a Twitter account has fans in their pocket 24/7 and 365 days a year.
When clubs present a few guidelines (avoiding explicit language, no hate speech, etc.) for their players to follow in regards to social media, it helps remind them that the team’s image is intertwined with their own. Of course anyone can use their better judgment to know where the line is and not to cross it, but sometimes the line isn’t obvious to all.
In 2012, then with Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Lee Nguyen and Brad Knighton were caught on Twitter in an exchange using homophobic language. The club issued a statement noting the players were given warnings after deleting the tweets under their own volition. It is in a situation like that, where a player backtracks from what they feel is a joke, that a communications coordinator can best advise them on what crosses the line from ‘banter’ to offensive and harmful – although obviously it’s preferable that the players understand the difference before hurting others.
Of course, that’s not always possible. If a social media incident arises when the national team isn’t in session, U.S. Soccer would be inclined to defer to a club’s communications coordinator. But in Bedoya’s case, the tweets were U.S. soccer specific in nature, and it seemed FC Nantes weren’t about to get involved. It was too little, too late when, likely under the encouragement of U.S. Soccer’s communication staff, Bedoya’s initial tweets were deleted a few hours after posting.
He did, however, leave up several others to act as his apology of sorts. The lasting tweets of the episode doubled down on his original sentiments but also admonished those who were critical of his social media use. “I almost forgot I have to be politically correct because I’m an athlete,” Bedoya wrote. He finished with, “So, what I’m learning now via Twitter is that some people value athletic achievement more than human life… Got that”.
Wambach was certainly in the wrong, which she admitted. Her apology for her DUII mentions the fans she let down, understanding that who she is and who she represented matters. Can’t the same be said about Bedoya? That who he is and who he also represents draws attention to his actions? No team sets out to censor their players, but they do have an interest in taking action when a statement reflects negatively on their image.
Ahead of graduation, professors told us to comb through our social media profiles, because future employers would likely use them to see if we were the kind of people they’d like to represent their company. The internet is still the ‘real’ world. Today, a tweet is the equivalent to spoken words from the user. So what you say on Twitter matters – especially if your tweets end up on ESPN. So to Bedoya, to other players considering letting their thoughts flow publicly, and even to the rest of us, it’s old and cliched advice: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t tweet it either.