Protect the Social Shield

The social media reality for pro athletes is not a comfortable one.

Young men suddenly empowered with incredible amounts of money and attention is a recipe for uncomfortable situations and overdeveloped senses of entitlement. Add in “friends” who are quick to gain a little notoriety by being the one to post a photo or a tweet about a less than pleasing situation, and you have utter chaos.

You need go no further than last month’s Riley Cooper scandal. The Philadelphia Eagle was drunk at a Kenny Chesney concert, and yelled a racial slur at a security guard. Someone caught the incident on their mobile phone and posted it to YouTube. And so ensues a national media story that involves the entire NFL, and is so big it prompted Chesney to denounce Cooper.

While an extreme situation, the social media gaffe in pro sports are pretty common. Every week some athlete embarrasses themselves on Twitter, permanently damaging their reputation, and negatively impacting their team and their larger sport.

As the NFL moves towards its 2013 season, we’ve already seen several examples from Redskin RG III (Robert Griffin) tweeting out of context on his recovery from knee surgery to Giant Victor Cruz’s violent tweet about the Travyon Martin murder case decision.

By no means are errant social updates limited to the NFL. The NBA has turned such faux bravado on Twitter into a comic art, and MLB has seen several Internet flares including Melky Cabrera’s fake website defending his innocence from HGH doping to A-Rod’s tweets in contrast with his Yankees team’s views.

Will the NFL go out of business because of social media gaffes? No. But they are losing opportunities to maximize the brand.

It’s a problem many companies contend with. Employees say what they want online. In doing so they embarrass themselves, and unwittingly can tarnish the company’s brand and its business. Like sports leagues, these types of scenarios highlight a need for pro-active training, conversations, and policies.

Proactive Approaches Create a Win-Win

The limits of the NFL social media policy extends to game days only. Instead general conversations between teammates and staff, and public discussion such as this blog are that’s available to advise players. Individual teams may or may not have policies/approaches of their own. Players are on their own for learning how to use social media and you can see the results.

Of all the professional sporting leagues in the United States, none is more image conscious than the NFL. The NFL goes to great lengths to protect its logo, known as “the shield,” and associated trademarks from false advertising and non-paying unapproved affiliations. That’s why I personally find it shocking that Commissioner Roger Goodell hasn’t punished Cooper for his slur, nor has he done anything substantive to train players about social media risks on a League level.

It is astounding to think that the League and its teams haven’t figured out the benefits of training players on how to use social. The same could be said about any of the Leagues. Consider the following:

  • Less player gaffes online.
  • Better community participation from players (and owners, too).
  • Players build stronger community ties for post playing career opportunities.
  • Communities develop a stronger affinity with their local teams.
  • General good will for the sports brands increases.

Clearly many players like Kobe Bryant and Michael Vick are already very savvy with social media. And some teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, New Jersey Devils and the Washington Nationals have made great strides with social media savviness. But why not intentionally raise the general bar rather than waiting for folks to figure it out?

Protect the social shield. What do you think?

A version of this post ran originally on the Vocus blog. Featured image by Brian Nagan.