When Olympic swimmers Nick D’Arcy and Kenrick Monk posted photos of themselves holding guns on Facebook the Australian Olympic Committee acted swiftly to punish them. Hugh Stephens wonders just how much character athletes are allowed to display.

We’ve recently seen a lot of activity about the use of social media by sportspeople, most notably Nick D’Arcy and Kenrick Monk posting a photo of themselves brandishing guns on their Facebook and Twitter profiles at a Californian rifle range. Subsequently the pair have been banned from social media during the Olympics, and have self-imposed a ban in the time coming up to the Games.

And this story isn’t the first (nor will it be the last) about a sportsperson posting inappropriate content on their social media profile(s). Almost every code has had at least one incident, from the AFL to the NFL, hockey to water polo. Of course, not all of them receive the same level of media attention.But is this really a good thing for everyone involved? Australia is a nation that loves sport – perhaps pathologically. And so we like to keep in touch with what goes on in our sportspeople’s lives. Tools like Facebook and Twitter are perfect for this, and allow athletes to put some personality behind their face.

The level of access the public now has to our athletes can also be pretty detrimental. Certainly while it has been pointed out multiple times that we are perhaps overreacting to their right for “boys to be boys”, I would say that considering the broad media attention it has probably damaged Swimming Australia’s brand. In the same way, the two swimmers may have lost some avid followers – or gained some – or perhaps nobody really cares that much.

The important thing that I see here is that Swimming Australia needs to do a little more education about being a positive role model and ‘personality’ for themselves as athletes – as well as the organisation, the Games and the country. A read over Swimming Australia’s social media policy and you can see that it’s highly generic and hardly clarifies to swimmers what is okay and what is not – it just tells them not to post anything that may harm their or the organisation’s reputation.

But I question whether there really has been adequate education about how the swimmers (and sportspeople more generally) can develop an online ‘brand’ that is both fun and engaging – while being appropriate. This certainly isn’t a black-and-white situation – there is a huge spectrum of content that may or may not be appropriate.

Let’s take an example (all credit to Stewart Morrison). Is it appropriate for an athlete to post a photo:

  • in a suit, holding a glass of wine,
  • in a singlet, holding a beer,
  • shirtless in Phuket, drinking from a bucket,
  • or passed out in the sand, drinking from a plastic bottle of Jim?

Where is the line? Appropriateness of content is contextual, but at the same time – you don’t have control of the content, particularly if you’re a well-known personality.Ultimately there isn’t a magic bullet that will solve the problem of people acting inappropriately online. The issue is a cultural one, and one that requires education and the clarification of what and where the boundaries lie for each person’s situation professionally. Personally, I see Swimming Australia as the key body accountable here – it is their role to protect their ‘brand’ through education of athletes and responding proactively rather than reactively.

(re-posted from Open Forum)