Don Jones’ Tweets and Regulating Social Media Use of Professional Athletes

Among the many stories surrounding the historical drafting of Michael Sam into the NFL, Dolphins safety Don Jones’ tweet was quickly and wisely squashed into the past through swift action by the team. Although Jones’ reaction was not to the actual drafting of the first openly gay player into the NFL, but rather to Sam kissing his boyfriend in front of ESPN’s cameras after receiving the phone call from the St. Louis Rams. Jones reportedly tweeted “OMG” and “Horrible” in response to the kiss but the tweets have since been deleted. Although Jones issued an apology, the story opens up an interesting and valid discussion on whether teams or leagues can and should regulate the comments made by players on social media.

Of all the teams in the league, the Dolphins did not need the publicity this story has brought taking into account their recent history with player conduct. So what’s the answer to the question of whether teams and leagues are able to regulate players tweets? One issue  that may come to everyone’s mind is the right to free speech. How is it possible for the NFL or NBA to tell a player he cannot  express his opinions? Isn’t this a free country? Let’s take a look at why leagues may in fact be able to monitor and limit what players are posting on social media.

Can Leagues Regulate Social Media Use?

For many people in the United States, the terms and conditions of employment are determined through an employment contract or employee handbook. Each employee is essentially responsible for negotiating the terms of their employment individually. The players in most professional sports leagues are unionized and so the terms and conditions of employment are collectively bargained for. This means that all players adhere to one set of terms and conditions negotiated by the union leaders and are set out in a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Under collective bargaining, leagues and players can negotiate a number of terms and conditions including minimum and maximum salaries, length and amount of practice time allowed, and player conduct policies, among others. Similarly, if leagues would like to monitor or regulate what players are posting on their personal social media accounts, the leagues would have to include language into the CBA.

Most CBA negotiations (and most negotiations in general) involve a give and take by both sides; for example if the NFL wants to add two regular season games, it’s likely the players will ask for something in return. While it seems unlikely that players would give up their freedom to tweet, Facebook, or post to Instagram freely, we have learned from past experience that strikes and lockouts in professional sports hinge on money more often than not. It follows that if players are given the choice of money versus freedom of social media, they will likely go for the extra money. Here is an example of a social media policy put in place by Major League Baseball in 2012.

Should Leagues Regulate Social Media Use?

Aside from the issue of whether leagues can regulate what players post to social media, the question of whether they should is more compelling. The Dolphins would likely have saved themselves a lot of trouble and embarrassment had someone been monitoring Jones’ tweets the night Sam was drafted. If a PR executive can be fired for tweeting a “joke” which was clearly insensitive, why can’t players who have the privilege of playing among the top competition in the world be disciplined for the same? When you are an employee of an organization, like it or not you represent that organization. If you do something to embarrass yourself or the organization, they deserve the right to discipline you. I would expect each league that does not already have a social media policy in place, to include one in their respective CBA’s when it’s time to negotiate.

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About Rajiv Radia

Rajiv is a third year law student at American University - Washington College of Law in Washington DC and a long time sports fanatic.
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