June 15, 2013

The perils of social media

Players will always get into trouble with alcohol. It's modern technology that they have to be wary of and learn to use wisely

David Warner: a cautionary tale for cricketers who are unguarded in their use of social media © AFP

Even by the often ludicrous standards of professional sport, the recent David Warner v Joe Root spat is a pretty dumb story. Sure, there's a certain entertainment value to be had from watching cricket writers try to find meaning in an early morning bar argument over fancy-dress accessories, but beyond the revelations that Warner holds some fairly strong views on facial hair and that Root weighs so little he can be held back by Stuart Broad, I'm not sure if we've learnt anything new.

The incident, at its core, is just another example of how, for some young sportsmen, their ability to make judicious, instantaneous decisions under pressure remains a non-transferable skill from the field of play to their personal life. So whilst no one could have predicted Warner's fight-or-flight response would be triggered by a green and gold coloured wig, his subsequent actions had a wearisome familiarity for sports fans.

When the story started to break on Wednesday, the corner of social media occupied by cricket supporters reacted with equal predictability, as they proceeded to pick over the steady drip of fact, innuendo and rumour whilst spending the day endlessly churning over the same handful of played-out jokes based on Root's youthful looks and Warner's indifferent form. The only real surprise being that the large group of current cricketers with Twitter accounts displayed enough common sense to give the incident a wide berth, and those who did comment, managed to do so without making themselves part of the story. But then, Warner himself had provided a recent reminder to his fellow professionals of just how inadvisable it can be for sportsmen to react to news stories on social media.

There's a long list of temptations and pitfalls that can trip up a young athlete in the public eye; a list where alcohol and late nights spent in clubs and bars hold an enduring presence. But in the modern era, a new danger can be added: the risk of landing yourself in hot water by making an unguarded remark online.

You could argue that the current generation of players are the most susceptible to making such an error. Those who have already retired have little to lose from making contentious remarks, and, in some cases, much to gain from the higher profile caused by controversy. The teenage cricketer just making his way into the professional game has probably had a Facebook account throughout their school days, and is already well versed in keeping certain information away from public timelines that can be viewed by family or teachers. But most current players grew up in an era already left behind by the exponential advance of technology; an era that taught them to be computer-literate but overly comfortable with the idea of texting their every thought from a mobile device to a select band of trusted friends. The advent of social media presents those casual thoughts to a much wider, often less sympathetic, audience. And it appears that for some, their confidence in using new social media outstrips their ability to learn the self-discipline now required to censure the thoughts they broadcast from their mobile phone.

Cricketers having too much to drink and a little too much to say on a night out is nothing new. But players in the past didn't have to cope with the presence of CCTV cameras to capture their every move, mobile devices that can record and quickly disseminate an unguarded moment, and social media readily at hand to broadcast a drunken, career-affecting remark to a waiting world.

It's unlikely the next generation of players will be any less resistant to the temptations of late-night celebration/commiseration, and they will perhaps have to cope with the presence of ever more sophisticated technology capable of capturing their every indiscretion for posterity. But they can at least learn from the mistakes some current players are making with social media. A career in sport is too short, the temptations that can sidetrack it already too numerous, to risk the consequences of an injudicious comment on social media.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses