Monday, 8 October 2012

Sportsmen & sportswomen on Twitter - let them be heard loud and clear

Brian Clough and Muhammad Ali

I may be about to voice an uncomfortable truth here, but bear with me, as I hope that you’ll understand by the end of this post.

I think that sports men and women, particularly footballers, get an incredibly rough deal on social media sites - and I don’t think it’s fair.

Why? Well, let me explain.

Professional sports, whilst being entertainment for me and millions of other people around the globe, is actually a job to some. One with irregular hours, lots of travelling, and no real guarantee of job stability - offset by a wage packet that takes these variables into account. On top of that, imagine working at a job that you’ve been training for all of your life - since you could kick, throw or dribble a ball, you’ve been focused on one thing - being the very best at what you do. And once you get there, you have to remain the best, until somebody else, or your body, tells you otherwise.

It’s a tough life. Given, there are plenty of benefits. But it’s still tough.

Now - add to that the expectations of thousands, and in some cases millions of people. The expectation that you should not only be a fantastic sports person, but also a superb role model. If that wasn’t bad enough, you are expected by everybody you come into contact with to be a fantastically, authentically great human being. Perfect on the field, exemplary off of it. All under the gaze of the world’s media. And us. On Facebook. On Twitter.

You mess up?  You mean you’re not a genuinely great human being? YOU. ARE. TOAST.

In the past of course, it was much easier to cultivate a professional image. You just turn up at pre-approved press events, give a soundbite to a journalist, smile for a pre-approved photo opportunity, then shove off down the pub for a fag and a pint.

These days, the glare of the media spotlight is inescapable. It is easy to say of these young men and women that they should just keep their heads down and do the best they can. But it’s not the way the world works any more. To a certain extent, they are trapped in a golden cage - and we’ve joined the press in prodding them through the bars, delighting when they step out of line on social media or otherwise.

Joey Barton does not fit the typical archetype of a footballer. A reformed convict with a troubled career on and off the field, it was surprising to many when Joey joined Twitter and started to open up and engage with the world. Offering opinions, quoting George Orwell and referencing The Smiths. He upset a lot of people in the process - offering opinions on Alan Shearer, John Terry and other pros. People also laughed at him - a footballer with the supposed temerity to shake off his past and acknowledge his mistakes (past and present), whilst stating his opinions and worldview clearly.

In the NFL, of course we had the case of the Green Bay Packer T.J. Lang criticising the referees and the NFL after the stand-in referees they chose for the game against Seattle mad the bad call to end all bad calls.

It’s natural, of course, to get angry and upset where sports are involved. And Lang was part of a game that he thought his team deserved to win. He felt that he was robbed by a bad decision, he lost his temper, and he took to Twitter to have a rant. Cue hysterical retweeting and finger pointing from fellow users.

But I couldn’t get angry with either of these cases. Joey Barton and T.J. Lang are, I’m sure, more than capable of acting like idiots sometimes. But professional sport is a fundamentally emotional battleground, as well as a physical one.

Winners, losers, ups and downs. As a sports fan (primarily a football fan), I love it. It provides a plot, a storyline, a high stakes game in which I am elated when my team wins, and dejected when my team loses.

It’s what social media was invented for, to a certain extent. Our culture and society is built on stories, and stories need characters. We need people like Joey Barton. We need people like T.J. Lang.

We need sportsmen and women to be partial - why should they be denied it? Because they are in a supposedly privileged position? That doesn’t wash. They are flesh and blood, just like the rest of us.

Give me the sportspeople expressing their true selves on social media over that ridiculous advert starring Bobby Moore any day of the week. And just remember - if we strip opinion, controversy, conjecture and partiality away from sport, we strip away it’s human heart - which means that in the long run, we will end up seeing less of this...

And more Gary Linker (God forbid)

So, how about we give them a break?

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