Athletes have always been expected to set a good example. But today, does the immediacy of social media mean their right to free expression is under threat? Diran Adebayo considers the rules of the game.
HE LONDON OLYMPIC GAMES were dubbed the first Twitterlympics, a nod to the numer- ous athletes who were now using social media to share their experiences and comment on one of the world's most-loved sporting extravaganzas – and to the various deals the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had struck with Facebook and YouTube, among other big businesses. It goes without saying that social media has dramatically changed the style, reach of, and audience for public expression, and the unintended consequences of this brave new world are nowhere more appar- ent than in the audience- and responsibility-rich domain of the sporting 'role model'.
The explosion of social media has laid bare the dangers that were always lurking
It was in the small hours one night in the summer of 1984 that I first heard mention of what was to become a mighty concept: the role model. It was the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 and my family was grouped around the TV to watch Carl Lewis win the last of his record-equalling four gold medals. After- wards, a BBC journalist interviewed Lewis beside the track and said, 'Carl, you've done, won, everything now. What's next?' 'Oh now,' said Lewis, 'I'm going to be a role model.' What? I frowned inquiringly at my elders. I had not heard this phrase before and the way he said it sounded like it was a proper new job that he was moving on to. As I've said previously when writing about sport and the job of being a role model, I had this vision of him wheeling Pirelli tyres down catwalks ('roll model') and thought it bizarre that he would want to move from this to that.
It turned out, as the concept began playing an ever bigger part in the national and international 'conversation' from the 1990s onwards, I was only half wrong. It wasn't an orthodox job, but it was a 'job' in the sense that one of its primary func- tions was the making of money. Nor was it a job in the usual sense of a position that one voluntar- ily applies for and can leave should one choose – this was something that was thrust upon every figure, usually public, who was deemed to have some influence on others, especially the young; sportspeople, musicians, and so on. And the role models, the sport stars especially, usually accepted this position because of the extra money-making potential it afforded them through corporate endorsements and sponsorship.
And thus was born the 24-7 sportsman 'brand'. Where once people did their day job in ways that might result in the happy by-product of inspiring and exciting followers of their activity, now this informal quality, or consequence, was professional- ised, monetised. There was a new insistence that if you had achieved some level of standing in a high- profile profession you had also somehow signed up to a 24-hour contract of promoting a version of goodness to the world.
This is not the place, unfortunately, to give this over-egged neologism the full pants-down thrashing it deserves. The tensions and pretensions in the ways 'role model' has been propagated have been clear for some time: the way it is ostensibly about higher values when usually it is actually about celebrity and profiteering; the fact that these role models have no ethical or intellectual mandate, yet we grant them a privilege and responsibility we formerly accorded Solomon; its frequent racial condescension – somefolks apparently need models more than others – and Protestant banality ('work hard' is the routine message of the role model, telling you nothing of the importance of luck in success, or of the potential impact of societal connections or status).
But sceptical voices have been drowned out by the constellation of strong forces – the media, poli- cymakers, the beneficiaries themselves – wedded to the idea. Some of us have perhaps been too timid in attacking a concept that seems, for many, to have an obvious kernel of truth and social utility to it. However, the explosion of social media in recent years has laid absolutely bare the dangers that were always lurking in the creature of the role model. It seems to me we are now at a critical juncture. Unless more of us really step up and raise our voices, this thing will mow down many of our cherished, legitimate freedoms.
But at last year's Twitterlympics, it was easy to bear witness to a clash of corporations, spats erupting immediately over, essentially, money; ath- letes bristled at the fact that new IOC rules banned them from mentioning their own individual spon- sors in any tweets they made during the duration of the Games (unless their sponsors were the same as the IOC's), while one journalist, the Independ- ent's Guy Adams, found his Twitter account sum- marily cancelled after he was critical of NBC's Olympics coverage. Twitter had signed a Games partnership deal with Comcast Corp, the parent company of NBC. Twitter stated that Adams's account was suspended because the journalist had posted the corporate email address of NBC's Olympics president, Gary Zenkel, in contravention of Twitter's regulations. Still, their response to this everyday occurrence was strikingly heavy-handed.
If social media had been around during the 1968 Mexico Olympics, one wonders what the fate would have been of the famous black-gloved, arm-raised protests
All of these stories were swiftly trumped by the news that two athletes had been kicked out of the Games for posting unpleasant racially- inflected comments on Twitter. First, Swiss foot- baller Michel Morganella, irked after his team lost to South Korea, tweeted that Koreans 'can go burn' and are 'a bunch of mongoloids'. Then Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou, who had already distinguished herself by re-tweeting posts and YouTube videos of Golden Dawn, Greece's far-right anti-immigration party, excelled herself with this joke, as her country faced a mosquito outbreak: 'With so many Africans in Greece,' she tweeted, 'the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!' In expelling her, the Greek Olympic Committee said that her tweet was 'contrary to the values and ideas of the Olympic movement'.
The final athletic casualty of the Games was not an Olympian but a rugby player. The contract of Northampton Saints hooker Brett Sharman, South African born and raised, was terminated directly after he posted this tweet, just before Somalia-born UK runner Mo Farah won his second Olympic gold in the 5000 metre: 'Good luck Mohammed running for Paki ... I mean Great Britain ...' The official reason given by the club for his dismissal was that he had a long-standing knee injury.
Sympathy for these three will be limited in many circles, but add to these the tale of a fourth sportsman, American NFL Pittsburgh Steelers star Rashard Mendenhall, who was stripped of his sponsorship by sportswear company Cham- pion after tweeting, when Osama bin Laden was killed by the US military, 'What kind of person celebrates death? It's amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We've only heard one side ...' The repudiation of his view, quickly posted on the Steelers website by its president, Art Rooney II, laid bare the real issue at stake: 'The entire Steelers' organization is very proud of the job our military personnel have done and we can only hope this leads to our troops coming home soon.'
What unites these cases, beyond the important fact that all were expressing personal, legal opin- ions in what used to be understood as their 'off- duty' free time, is that all had un-family-friendly views. For 'rolemodeldom', you see, is essentially a quietist, conservative, status-quo-minded doctrine. It has, it seems, four tenets: don't smoke, don't do drugs (apart from widely sanctioned ones like alcohol or valium), don't sleep with anyone other than your ever-loving wife/husband and do sup- port your military.
The tyranny of social media
Even where racial or patriotic slurs are absent, sympathy for sportspeople caught up in these dra- mas is scanter than you might hope, to judge from the comments posted on media websites or sent by trolls to players' accounts. There is a tyrannical tendency, a kind of crowd control that has become apparent in social media whereby commonplace opinions are quickly endorsed with a barrage of 'likes' while those that deviate from the bulky middle of the curve are equally seized upon and shouted at. This is particularly noticeable in the mass-market, mass-follower world of sports.
Bound up with that lurks this idea that the athletes signed up to family friendliness by virtue of their trade. But did they do anything like that, really? If one has signed a contract with a particu- lar endorser or sponsor – many of which will have included some type of 'moral' clause indicating that the athlete is a 'representative' of their brand – then maybe. You supped and the devil will have his price. But those who do not have these extra deals, and even for high-profile individuals, when it comes to parts of their lives that do not involve these sponsor relationships, surely they are entitled to the same space that most ordinary employees have enjoyed until very recently. They did not ask to be represent- atives. They had no higher calling, necessarily. They are mainly people, like most of us, who wanted to do a job they enjoyed. It is others who are doing the insisting. They come for one, they come for all. New 'role model' contractual clauses for footballers are being mooted on the continent, making the contest- able explicitly mandatory and further encroaching on the employer–employee relationship.
In the USA, the 24-7 'brand' now seems to be giving way to the three-score-year-and-ten sports- man. The universities of Kentucky and Louisville are among increasing numbers of American col- leges, public as well as private, requiring that their sports players hand over access to their personal social media accounts to their coaches and other authorities. What they say affects 'the brand' of the university, as they are the public faces of it, explained Kentucky Athletics spokesman DeWayne Peevy. It's not clear just when 18-year-olds con- tracted to 'represent' the university and forego their First Amendment rights.
There has always been a level of expectation of virtue placed on sportsmen. It's there way back in baseball's famous 'Say it isn't so, Shoeless Joe' story, in which a distraught urchin is supposed to have accosted Chicago White Sox outfielder Joe Jackson outside court when his team was accused of fixing the World Series in 1920. As that piece of apocrypha indicates, the role model concept is usually justified by pointing to sportspeople's great influence on the young. Whether the relationship between child fan and his sporting or musical inspirers is anything like the one of blanket idola- try and vulnerability we are led to believe is, of course, moot too. Certainly this child, like many, welcomed more complex, potentially 'divisive' information from such figures – but today, the wider public would never give youth the credit to allow them the same sort of complex information. If social media had been around during the Mexico Olympics of 1968, one wonders what the fate would have been of the famous black-gloved, arm-raised protests of the sprinters Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman. Smith and Carlos were both students at San José State Col- lege, where they came under the influence of radical sociologist and Black Panther Harry Edwards. Their salute stemmed from a wider civil rights agenda more troublesome than Dr Martin Luther King's, in that it had no problem with 'armed resistance'. At the same time, Edwards's agenda did bear some similarities to King's in that it embraced both international as well as domestic issues, not least southern Africa and their call for the removal of then International Olympic Committee Presi- dent Avery Brundage for his reluctance to evict apartheid South Africa from the Olympic move- ment. Today, Smith's and Carlos's Twitter accounts might be shut down pre-Olympics because of their ideas, which would have been seen to be incom- patible with the brand of the university – or their comments would be vetted into innocuousness by their coach. Once at the Games, the athletes would probably face swift and ultimate action for their criticism of the IOC and the fact that they were clearly potential troublemakers. Their stand, which now lives forever in history, might never have got off the ground.
It is social media's misfortune to have been launched at both a time of great sentimentality around children and a wider moralism, a 'new health'. It has great potential, for social media is a baby itself, but we mustn't coddle it; we must allow it to work as it will, to help us discover what's on peo- ple's minds and in their hearts. The truth, and wider dissemination of our truths, is always the most useful thing any medium can do.
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