Athletes say social media will become more prominent in 2013

VANCOUVER – You won’t find Vancouver Canucks goaltender Cory Schneider on Twitter.

“I don’t have a Twitter account,” he said. “I don’t really do much on Facebook. Guys are more than in their right to do it. But just from seeing their experiences, it’s more likely to cause harm than do good. So I think it’s probably better just not to give yourself the opportunity to say something dumb.”

In Schneider’s view, people get quite “liberal” on Twitter while often remaining anonymous and avoiding accountability or repercussions. Fans can say what they want, players can get drawn into a debate and things “can turn nasty pretty quickly.”

But Schneider’s reluctance towards Twitter is an exception to the rapidly increasing trend of professional and amateur athletes using social media to spread news, share views or abuse competitors – among other purposes.

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Athletes, coaches and officials predict social media will become even more prominent in 2013.

“Now, you’re getting your information faster – whether it’s trades, contract extensions or players being cut – faster than ever before because the players are putting it out there,” said Jesse Lumsden, a brakeman with Canada’s bobsled team and former CFL running back.

“It’s not having to go through a media source.”

Athletes like Lumsden enjoy the way social media allows them to connect with fans. But stars have also faced intense criticism after making Twitter blunders.

During the 2012 Summer Games in London, Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou was sent home after she tweeted disparaging remarks about Africans, and Swiss soccer player Michel Morganella was sent packing after he insulted South Koreans following his team’s loss.

Meanwhile, B.C. Lions defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell was fined by the CFL and banned from a game by his team after posting a message derogatory towards Chinese on Twitter while commenting on the U.S. presidential election candidates.

In another online blunder, Calgary Stampeders receiver Nik Lewis made light of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson in the famous O.J. Simpson case. Lewis was fined by the league and, amid a public outcry, donated his Western Final game cheque to a local women’s shelter.

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But Anatoliy Gruzd, director of Dalhousie University’s social media lab, said such controversies are not unique to the sports world.

“We see controversies like these all the time,” he said. “It’s just a general misunderstanding of how open social media is. Quite often, it’s impossible to undo or delete a message.”

Gruzd said the solution is all about educating the user on appropriate online behaviour, especially if you’re a public figure.

Lumsden predicts more teams, leagues and other sporting organizations will have to get tougher on athletes who use social media to abuse people rather than inform or entertain their followers.

“The only way you’re going to deter athletes from pushing the boundaries is (by) making the education programs, showing them what’s right and what’s wrong and fining the athletes for crossing the boundaries just like you would if they were to be outspoken in a media scrum,” he said. “It’s the exact same thing.”

The first mistakes that sports organizations make, said Gruzd, are not being involved in social media and not having a policy to govern online behaviour. It’s difficult to punish someone for breaking social media rules without a policy in place.

But rules will vary according to communities and demographics, he said. What is appropriate for one age group may not be appropriate for another. By being involved in social media, sports organizations that face online criticism can know what is and isn’t a major controversy and respond accordingly.

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Gruzd predicts social media’s role in sports will become greater in the future as more athletes and organizations sign up for accounts and more people use smart phones and tablets.

Since athletes are gaining a celebrity status similar to movie stars, who are already quite prominent on social media, it’s quite possible that sports stars will also be vulnerable to cyber-stalking, spammers and hackers who try to access their accounts.

Still, Gruzd predicts the advantages of social media in sports will vastly outweigh the disadvantages.

He studied the 2011 Canada Winter Games and found that the small events can gain from the increased online exposure. Researchers were greatly concerned that people would share copyrighted images and articles, but the findings showed the sharing of material did not hurt broadcast rights holders and other media, because it created even more interest in their content – and opportunities for increased revenue.

Accordingly, amateur athletes who often struggle financially while receiving little public attention welcome social media as a means of gaining increased exposure for their sports and themselves.

“It’s a good way for amateur athletes to get their name out there and market themselves more,” said Canadian skeleton racer Sarah Reid, who uses Facebook but is not on Twitter. “It’s a really great tool.”

“It brings (the sport) closer to home and more personal,” added top Canadian women’s bobsled driver Kaillie Humphries, who got involved with an anti-bullying campaign after being contacted via Facebook. “Hopefully, that brings amateur athletes to different levels.”

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But she said the International Olympic Committee prohibits athletes from giving a shout-out to unofficial sponsors via social media.

Bill Cooper, former director of commercial rights management for Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic organizing committee and an adviser to the Canadian Olympic Committee, said the increased use of social media among athletes, coaches and officials will make it more difficult for lesser-known sports to gain public interest.

“Borderline or fringe sports trying to gain credibility or mass interest can now be set back substantially by a lack of collective messaging within their given sport fraternity,” he said.

Future Olympics and other major events will also be more susceptible to ambush marketing after unprecedented social media use at London enabled unofficial marketers attach themselves to the Games without paying sponsorship fees, infringing on the rights of broadcasters and official licensees.

“In my mind social media has now gone from a viable source for enthusiasts to a viable source for all,” said Cooper.

But Mark Silver, TSN’s senior director of digital, said sharing the network’s content will not have a negative effect, because people will seek its high-quality content. TSN has asked YouTube to pull some illegally-obtained videos off the website, but by and large the network does not see the sharing of images and other material as a major problem.

“As long as the rights that we have paid for are protected, we are all for it. … We can’t possibly police social media,” said Silver. “We would never try to. All we can really do is control TSN employees’ engagement on social media, which I think we do a pretty good job (of), but we allow a lot of latitude to our talent. … They don’t pretend to walk a fine line. They know the right and wrong side of the line.”

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Commercial concerns aside, Martin Laurendeau, captain of Canada’s Davis Cup tennis team, is concerned about the sharing of too much information before major competitions.

“Things are happening very quickly and it’s also affecting the tactics,” he said. “Word gets around quick and you can’t keep a secret anymore.”

Still, Tennis Canada takes a proactive approach to social media, which includes employing an employee full-time to spread its message via microsites. Laurendeau is not on Facebook or Twitter but welcomes social media’s expanding role in sports.

“For tennis, I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “The more people talk about tennis, the more it’s on the front lines and in the (newspapers) and on TV, it’s all good.”

Despite his concerns, Schneider does not begrudge social media its increasing role. Its pros and cons, he said, are open to debate.

“I’m sure it’s going to be around for a long time,” said Schneider.

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