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At the beginning of the year it was revealed that the conviction rate in front of the FA Disciplinary Panel was an impressive 99.5%. This compares with an 80% conviction rate in the Crown Court. Claims that this shows unfair procedures at the FA is perhaps a little unfair when it’s considered that a great many incidents which appear before the panel take place in front of television cameras. I’m sure most CPS prosecutors would relish the opportunity to prosecute a crime committed in High Definition and filmed from several angles.

A growing offence, which is committed in front of a willing audience for the world to see, is a breach of Rule E3 committed on social media. All offences so far relate only to Twitter.

There have been 16 charges (100% conviction rate) relating to improper Tweets. Fines have varied from £150 to £20,000. Fines relate more closely to a player’s weekly wage rather than the perceived seriousness of the offence which is why players in the lower reaches of the pyramid and the women’s game can expect fines in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

What is perhaps most worrying is that by far the most common Twitter offence is the homophobic Tweet. Accounting for over half of the convictions. It is good to see the FA taking the issue of homophobia seriously, however, it is concerning that homophobic language still fits in the vernacular of some young players and also older players, judging by 38 year old Lee Steele who was subsequently sacked by Oxford City after his Tweet.

Players need to be educated on what is deemed acceptable language to use in a public forum and to understand the responsibilities they have as an ambassador for their club and the sport. Whatever views they hold privately, or whatever they do in their private life, is a matter for them but, when they choose to take part in public activity (such as Tweeting) they have a responsibility to respect others, or face the consequences.

The fines dished out to Manny Smith and Hope Akpan (both £1,200) would suggest that those consequences, for any professional footballer convicted of this type of offence, will include a fine of over £1,000.

A table of the fines and suspensions, based on the information available, is set out below:

Football’s authorities are not alone in dealing with disciplinary offences on social media. The table below sets out some of the punishments dished out in other sports.

What is interesting is the introduction of some very lengthy (but so far suspended) suspensions both imposed for criticism of the authorities themselves (imposed on rugby player Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu and snooker player Mark Allen). The FA imposed their first ban in May this year, a six game ban for Women’s Super League player Ruesha Littlejohn. It is a worrying development for clubs and teams who may be very concerned that a player’s failure to control him/herself on social media may deprive them of his/her services.

The Chairman of the RFU Committee which suspended Fuimaono-Sapolu, Daniel White, gave an articulate explanation of why sporting authorities are required to intervene when players cross the disciplinary line on social media:

“The Twitter forum is not one for ‘banter’ and is not the equivalent of a clubhouse discussion — it is in fact a public forum, and for that reason players should be guarded in what is said and therefore endorsed.

“It should be noted that young people, those learning the sport and the public at large look to people in his position and for these reasons we have imposed a sentence designed to deter others who may be tempted to act in this way.”

The rules used to discipline players for transgressions online are not new. It is the forum that is (relatively) new. Had players made outrageous statements in post-match interviews, newspapers or any other public forum in the pre-social media era, then they could have expected the same censure as is dished out nowadays.

As Hugh Morris, the ECB’s Managing Director, said after dishing out a fine to Kevin Pietersen, the use of Twitter by athletes is “like giving a machine gun to a monkey”. However, in the interests of fairness, I should point out that it is not only sportsmen and women who have fallen foul of the authorities when Tweeting. A (dis)honourable mention for the legal profession. At the beginning of this year a barrister was fined £2,500 by the Bar Council for a series of unprofessional Tweets including one in which he labelled opposing Counsel a “pr**k” and another in which he boasted that “the whoring and drinking” would begin after his trial. His conduct was deemed by the Bar Council as being “conduct which was likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession or the administration of justice or otherwise bring the legal profession into disrepute”. The Twitter offences were, though, the last of his woes as he was debarred for failing to declare that he was a 100% beneficial shareholder of a company he was representing in court!

Social media can have a hugely positive effect, however, those in the public eye, making public statements using this media need help to understand the technology, the effect of its use and the obligations they have. As Charles van Commenée, the Head of UK Athletics, has said [Social media is] a reality and we have to find a way to deal with it. Can we forbid it? No. But we can help our athletes use that medium smartly and deal with it when accidents occur”.

 

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