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12:35 AM Wed, Nov. 21st

Kobritz: Athletes and social media, a toxic brew

Beyond the Lines

What do Josh Hader of the Milwaukee Brewers, Trea Turner of the Washington Nationals, Sean Newcomb of the Atlanta Braves, and Sonny Gray of the Yankees have in common? They are among the athletes who have made inappropriate and offensive social media posts.

MLB players aren’t the only athletes who have humiliated themselves on social media. Former Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen experienced similar public embarrassment only hours before the NFL draft in April. Donte DiVincenzo was the subject of public backlash the night he led Villanova’s basketball team to this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. And it’s safe to assume the above list is far from exhaustive.

What do embarrassing posts tell us about an athlete’s moral character? The only person who can answer that question definitively is the person who authored the tweets. Each of the athletes mentioned above issued the predictable mea culpa. Turner said he was “sincerely sorry.” Hader told his teammates, “There’s no excuse for what was said. I’m deeply sorry for what I’ve said, and it doesn’t reflect any of my beliefs going on now.”

As Charles Barkley famously said, athletes are in the public eye because they play sports at a high level, not because they’re role models. What we can say with certainty is anyone caught in a social media firestorm is irresponsible and careless, if for nothing more than failing to delete the offending comments once they become public figures.

So rather than trying to discern an athlete’s moral compass perhaps we should ask what can be done to insulate them from the prying public. Here’s a suggestion. MLB teams currently require language instruction in their Minor League systems. Most teams and leagues also provide some sort of media training - what to say or not to say to reporters. They should also offer their players guidelines on the use of social media.

Agents, who are paid to represent their clients, should make it a priority to not only advise them on financial matters, but the ins and outs of social media as well. It doesn’t take long to clean up old tweets or delete an account and start from scratch, but once a single person takes a screenshot of a tweet, it’s too late to erase the damage.

A number of leagues have a social media “policy.” MLB’s current policy, enacted in 2012, states: “No racial, sexist, homophobic, anti-religious, etc. comments.” It also includes an enforcement clause that reads, “Anyone who violates the rules is subject to discipline from the commissioner.” So far, the strongest discipline MLB has handed down was ordering Hader to undergo sensitivity training.

Athletes can use social media to do good work that benefits individuals and society. For proof, see the tens-of-millions of dollars J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans raised to aid Hurricane Harvey victims. However, trouble lurks a mere click away. In that respect, social media is like fire; it makes the world a better place but if we don’t take appropriate precautions it can quickly rage out of control.

Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.