9 February ~ The devastating collision between football and Twitter seems to escalate with each coming week. In the last seven days Premier League players have criticised supporters, referees and fellow professionals; fans have been caught racially abusing rival club players; and journalist Patrick Barclay has incensed Liverpool supporters by referring to the Heysel European Cup final deaths. As more players, fans and pundits are lured onto Twitter, further trouble seems to ensue. Football is not the only source of controversy on Twitter. For celebrities, politicians and journalists alike, the slightest slip-up or careless remark is pounced on by others users and publicised instantly.
Tweets on the game seem to cause more trouble than most, though. It has the disadvantage of being an incredibly emotive sport for players and spectators alike, meaning things are regularly said in the heat of the moment. The instantaneous nature of the site, which enables players to post their thoughts from the substitutes bench or changing room, doesn't help and can lead to real embarrassment for their employers.
So what can be done? Some teams – notably the Holland squad at the 2010 World Cup – have banned their players from using Twitter, but this could prove very difficult to implement on a wider level. How might prolific users such as Rio Ferdinand and Joey Barton respond if their clubs asked them to stop tweeting?
Barton made clear, through Twitter and in a Times article last week, that he sees his account as a platform for "freedom of speech". He asked his one million followers: "What is the point of living, if you cannot express your opinion?"
Regulation might offer the answer. Players should be allowed to make a fool of themselves, but not their employers. That seems fair enough, but the trouble is knowing where to draw the line. Should Darren Bent, while at Tottenham, have been allowed to openly criticise the club's chairman Daniel Levy? Should Ravel Morrison be free to make homophobic remarks about rival fans? Should Charles N'Zogbia be allowed to tell his followers he is not enjoying playing for Aston Villa?
Was it right for Ryan Babel to artistically accuse Howard Webb of being biased towards Manchester United? What about Barton's open criticism of Newcastle's transfer policy while he was still at the club? These are just a few well known cases. Clearly, it would be extremely difficult to administer consistent regulation on players using Twitter.
So football clubs, like political parties, television channels, supermarkets and most other organisations, are put into a very difficult situation. It is impossible to ban players from tweeting and it is difficult to regulate their tweets.
The most simple and logical solution is to stop players from referring directly to club affairs and make clear their opinions are personal and not representative of their employer's. Players like Barton – who came dangerously close to contempt of court on Twitter over the weekend – might not enjoy such top-down moderation, but in light of how badly players come across on the site, closing their accounts wouldn't be the worst solution. William Turvill