April 24, 2013

Where do we draw the line on Twitter outbursts?

Increasingly, if a tad incongruously, words are arousing as much fury as misdeeds

Tricky blighter, freedom of speech: lovely notion, complex reality. As principles go, it's as slimy as a snake soaked in suncream. One man's freedom is another man's outrage. Hypocrisy comes easy. Of course you should be perfectly within your rights to say whatever you wish - so long as you're not an extremist or fundamentalist, or have the gall to disagree with us sensible, reasonable fellows.

Thus it was with John Mooney, hitherto best known for sealing an improbable victory for Ireland over England in the World Twenty20. Had he dispatched his now infamous tweet - "I hope it was slow and painful" - about the death of Hugo Chavez, say, rather than Margaret Thatcher, it is unthinkable that it would have ricocheted beyond a few Dublin bars. As it was, Mooney was upbraided in the media, scolded publicly by his employers and compelled to apologise. Now he's been suspended for three matches.

Yet surely Mooney had every right to voice his views. Being a Dubliner, after all, scarcely disqualifies you from sympathising with the plight under Thatcher of the Northern Irish, let alone the mainland's disenfranchised and disadvantaged. That one should forgive the evil dead has always struck me as rather perverse. And judging by the parties that followed her demise, not to mention the invasion of the pop charts by three versions of Judy Garland's Wizard of Oz ditty "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead", it seems fair to say Mooney is far from being the only UK citizen who regards Thatcher as evil.

Increasingly, if a tad incongruously, words are arousing as much fury as misdeeds. How much easier it now is for us to express ourselves to the world at large, to tap or type than engage our brain or conscience, to turn a stream-of-consciousness rant of minimal import into a page lead, then write a column banging on about the shallowness of celebrities. The Twitter age has lit a bonfire of the inanities. Thinking in terms of 140 characters rather than words or spelling or punctuation was never going to enhance the cause of written English, but there's far more to all this than literary snobbery and grammatical tyranny.

"It's time to work on your interviews… You gonna have to learn your clichés." Thus does Kevin Costner's ageing slugger "Crash" Davis open an instructional talk to rookie pitcher "Nuke" LaLoosh in Ron Shelton's 1988 homage to minor league baseball, Bull Durham, one of the funniest and most perceptive of all sporting movies. Whereupon "Crash" reels off a list:

We gotta play them one day at a time… I'm just happy to be here… hope I can help the ball club… I just wanna give it my best shot, and the good Lord willing, things will work out.

When "Nuke" moans that it's all a bit, y'know, boring, "Crash" informs him that that's exactly what it's meant to be. Call it the art of saying nothing - or at least nothing that could possibly upset the boss. Call it freedom of conformity.

The Twitterati, thankfully, are shifting the furniture. Liberated from the repressive leash of press officers, cliché-steeped sportsfolk now use social media to cut out the middlemen, bypassing club, print and TV and communicating directly with anyone possessing the vaguest interest in their utterances. Kept at bay by those self-same press officers and official websites, journalists are on perpetual Twitter-watch to obtain unmanicured, uncensored quotes. What ensues is largely a torrent of the banal, the blinkered and the blindingly obvious, worthy of note only because they emanate from a celebrity.

How much easier it now is for us to express ourselves to the world at large, to tap or type than engage our brain or conscience, to turn a stream-of-consciousness rant of minimal import into a page lead, then write a column banging on about the shallowness of celebrities

Exceptions, refreshingly, are on the rise. Witness the expanding ranks of American baseballers and basketballers now tweeting their take on racial and political issues, fully cognisant that their pockets could suffer. Witness, too, Javi Poves, once a defender with the Spanish f***ball club Sporting Gijon, who in tweeting his retirement in 2011 described his trade as "putrid" and "corrupt". To continue in this "circus", he declaimed, would betray his principles: "Footballers are valued too much by our society compared to others who should be the true heroes. The system is based on being sheep and the best way to control them is to have a population without culture."

The downside of the Twitter Age was clear in the recent landmark case involving Chris Cairns and Lalit Modi, wherein the latter's allegations of match-fixing against the former New Zealand captain foundered due to absence of evidence. "The allegation is not as serious as one of involvement in terrorism or sexual offences," admitted Justice Bean before ordering the erstwhile IPL commissioner to stump up £90,000 in damages. "But it is otherwise as serious an allegation as anyone could make against a professional sportsman." At the time of tweeting, crucially, Modi was clearly suffering from hubris. "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," reckoned Kris Kristofferson; Modi's freedom was that of a man drunk on power, on imagined invincibility.

Views diverge, sometimes within the same office. In September 2011, Steve Elworthy, head of marketing at the England and Wales Cricket Board, asserted that "the general awareness" of the national team had never been higher, attributing this in good measure to "digital media such as Facebook and Twitter allowing followers to get closer to their heroes". Come the following summer's annual Kevin Pietersen eruption, Elworthy's boss Hugh Morris, managing director of Team England, decried Twitter as "a complete and utter nightmare for those of us trying to manage and lead teams", likening it to "giving a machine-gun to a monkey".

It was the deceptive freedoms facilitated by social media that dragged the Pietersen spat out of the dressing room and thrust it into our inboxes. Maybe that's what Twitter has become - an access-all-areas pass of Tower of Babelian proportions, where the lines between private and public are not so much blurred as eradicated. Nor does it help, of course, when the authorities play their traditional get-out-of-jail-free card and shoot the messenger.

It may have stemmed from a more conventional source - an interview - but the recent minor furore over Adil Rashid is a pathetic case in point. In late January, when Richard Rae pressed "record" in a café at Headingley, the Yorkshire and former England legspinner, star painfully on the wane, bemoaned the way he felt he'd been sidelined ("How can I not be bowling well enough when I'm hardly bowling at all?"). All pointed to a young man getting something extremely lumpy off his chest.

Then the magazine that commissioned Rae repeatedly delayed its next issue and, at length, he sold the story to the Cricket Paper and the Independent: it had a limited shelf life. When the quotes were finally published a fortnight ago, on the eve of a new County Championship campaign, Yorkshire complained, claiming it was the first they'd heard of Rashid's dissatisfaction; then the player backtracked; both blamed the newspapers and hence Rae.

To fully contextualise the Mooney episode, however, consider what was proffered for public consumption before this year's Super Bowl by one Chris Culliver. First, the San Francisco 49er burnished his image as a sexist of the highest order by tweeting something wholly unseemly about the female menstrual cycle. Then, asked if he would ever accept a gay team-mate, he replied: "No, we don't got no gay people on the team… they gotta get up out of here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff."

The ensuing stink obliged Culliver to issue what Dave Zirin, US sportswriting's conscience-in-chief, described, with all due scepticism, as "the finest, most heartfelt apology a 49er public relations intern ever had to write". Not that the 49ers punished their asset too severely, insisting merely that he undergo "sensitivity training". A few days ago, such complicity received its due when the club announced that Culliver was being "handled internally": questions had been raised about his Instagram account, through which he posted a text conversation in which women were referred to as "bitches" and "hoes".

Culliver might have concluded that, in an era when - to tweak that imperishable Adam and the Ants hit - notoriety is nothing to be scared of, it pays to cause offence. He wouldn't be the first. Yet if freedom of speech is to be anything other than a one-sided, one-eyed deal, affirming Mooney's right to vent his spleen surely means affording Culliver the same hard-won privilege, however grievously he offends our sense of right and wrong. That Culliver got away with it the first time says less about him than his employers.

Professional sport has its own take on freedom of speech: there are rules, contractual obligations, fines and suspensions to keep players in check and sponsors sweet. We all have our prejudices. According to mine, Culliver deserves to have the book thrown at him; Mooney didn't.

But if we're drawing a line, where do we draw it? At the ubiquitously slippery "bringing the game into disrepute"? Define disrepute. You would have thought sexism and homophobia are now the very definition of disreputable, but the 49ers, and the NFL, evidently deem otherwise. What about the morals of staging a Grand Prix in Bahrain, or those filthy-rich club owners who put bottom lines before glory? Or those who stirred up the civil war now engulfing New Zealand cricket?

Perhaps the question needs rephrasing. Can the words of batsmen or linebackers really bring our games into any more disrepute than those who seek to curb their often excusably immature excesses?

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton