Jonathan over at Just-Football wrote a post yesterday reacting to the recent Twitter "gaffes" of Liverpool players Glen Johnson and Ryan Babel, who got in trouble for tweeting their honest, if tactless and ill-advised, opinions on the game they're paid a great deal of money to play. He ends his post with a question: "Should players have free reign to say what they like on social networking sites like Twitter? Or, in light of the recent spate of comments, do they need to be a little bit more responsible regarding what they tweet?"
Football is, if anything, a sport prone to wild hypocrisy, and the holier-than-thou attitudes of journalists and bloggers on the way footballers are using social media is just one thread in that giant, smelly web. To begin though, I should make my opinion on Twitter clear. Sometimes it feels like the album cover of Sergeant Pepper, with fans, journalists, bloggers and footballers all wedged together in a stifling pub, trying to carry on ten conversations at once at the speed of typing/texting. In Pub Twitter, the veneer of professional boundaries is gone; the lowly blogger/IT professional in Detroit is able to inform a Times of London sports journalist on his or her opinion about a recent newspaper op-ed, and often get an interesting, if curtailed, response. Everything is exposed, out in the open. We learn in real time as match report writers madly delete and retype stories in light of extra time goals. We read about the pre-game training techniques of players at the same time we read of their traveling fans' troubles on the M1.
Twitter has beaten out its web 2.0 rivals in that it has achieved a unique kind of public intimacy between strangers divided by class, profession, nation, or club. It would be fashionable, and incorrect, to say it's a "false" intimacy. All intimacy is in some sense false, considering I can never really know what anyone else is truly thinking unless I jump in their head, Being John Malkovich-styles. False intimacy on Twitter more resembles those celebrity accounts that only convey bland, 140-character snippets of PR and promotion. Accounts like these tend to be left out of the conversation altogether. Twitter doesn't really work if you're not at least attempting to appear honest. And honesty can often be professionally inconvenient.
Onto the hypocrisy bit. As football fans and journalists, we have extremely complex expectations for players. As a fan, when I watch Aston Villa I still expect something akin to loyalty from the players, even though in the back of my mind I'm aware their relationship with the club is entirely professional and that they are classified in the EU as "entertainment workers" for tax and visa purposes. This might be what movie critics would call the "suspension of disbelief." Although it's not quite that, because players do in fact love the clubs they play for, even though those clubs pay them enormous sums of money that players' representatives have legally bargained for on their behalf. This is no different from the artist who loves to sing but expects to get paid a living wage for their talent. Some fans are aware of this distinction but choose to ignore it, expecting total, honest club loyalty from their own highly-paid players even as they beg the manager to pay out the highest sums possible to "buy more talent." We want players to be both club supporters and disinterested professionals at the same time, like the way we expect players to hate referees on the pitch but avoid any and all criticism of them in the post-game interview.
The problem is many players aren't aware of our often-contradictory expectations. Ryan Babel was called "unprofessional" for crudely insinuating via Twitter that Howard Webb always favours Manchester United at Old Trafford, even though it is routine for players to mouth the words "fuck off" at referees throughout England during matches, often for utterly uncontroversial decisions. Glen Johnson also received quite a Tweet-lashing from angry journalists after his vicious personal attack on Paul Merson, as if a player routinely exposed to vicious fan vitriol should be an expert in avoiding ad hominem criticism. We expect him to respond to Merson's criticism with Oscar Wilde-like wit and reserve, rather than in the language that greets Johnson from the stands on a weekly basis.
The inability of footballers to live up to our complex expectations is in many ways why, prior to Twitter, celebrity players' interaction with the media and fans was highly controlled. Gone are the days when you'd see your club's star midfielder settling in for a Sunday roast at the pub after the game; now, he's busy paying a ghostwriter to pen a favourable memoir at age 26. The intimate nature of Twitter however has sprung a leak in that tightly-sealed perimeter, and the FA and clubs are now constantly busy plugging holes. One solution would be for players to stay off Twitter altogether, and go back to the false veneer of professional silence. That would certainly solve the problem, but would make Twitter all the less revealing and interesting. Much better, and much less likely, would be for all of us to let Twitter remain a neutral zone for honest professional venting, much as it is now, with the @ reply serving as the yardstick of accountability. Our obsession with the notion that anything said publicly must be subject to rigorous and unrealistic professional standards means that, for now, players are best going back into their shells.