Mark Segal questions whether an overtly strict approach to players' use of Twitter is precluding an exciting new opportunity

During his undistinguished seven-match England career, striker Carlton Cole has failed to put a smile on the face of Fabio Capello or his bosses at the Football Association.

So it was perhaps ironic that an attempted joke during March’s Wembley friendly against Ghana ended up costing the West Ham forward £20,000 after he accepted a charge of improper conduct. Watching the game on television, Cole sent the following tweet to his 50,000-plus followers: “Immigration has surrounded the Wembley premises! I knew it was a trap! The only way to get out safely is to wear an England jersey and paint your face w/ the St George’s flag!”

A bad joke, certainly, possibly borderline racist but not horribly offensive. Cole quickly received a number of replies pointing out how his tweet was being perceived and soon deleted it. But by then the damage was done.

The message had already been picked up by websites and was reported in newspapers, and in the days that followed an FA charge of “improper conduct” soon arrived. This was intriguing as Cole is clearly no longer a member of the England squad and had no connection to the game he was watching. He was tweeting in a personal capacity but was still being asked to explain his comments.

Cole’s post was the latest in a long line of Twitter mishaps and there are certain to be more as new players sign up daily. With their role as the game’s guardian the FA have taken it upon themselves to police Twitter but it’s a task they will never master. This is not meant as a criticism but as an observation of the way social media is changing the relationship between footballers, the media and fans.

In obvious cases, such as when the then Liverpool forward Ryan Babel tweeted a picture of referee Howard Webb wearing a Man Utd shirt, there can be little argument. And while many will feel Cole was unlucky to be hit with such a charge, the FA, who are often criticised for not having a coherent policy over certain areas of the game, appear certain on this issue. To the game’s law-makers Twitter is part of the “media” so all the things you’re not allowed to say in the press, you’re not allowed to say on Twitter. In fact, in the weeks before Cole’s tweet all clubs had been sent a letter from the FA clarifying this point.

The FA admit that they are unable to monitor all tweets from all players, but say they are obliged to act if a comment is brought to their attention by the media or fans. That they at least have a social media policy is a good start, but you can’t help thinking it’s the wrong one. They could be opening themselves up to a whole world of pain as players become more comfortable with the medium and begin to open up. They will inevitably punish some but ignore others, leading to more calls of inconsistency from the FA-baiting media.

Cole’s West Ham team-mate Danny Gabbidon has also been charged after a 3am swear-word-filled rant at his critics, but there are numerous examples of lower-league players doing the same thing and escaping punishment. As much as the FA are trying to protect the image of the game, they need to see that Twitter is changing the rules and adopt a more mature approach.

By all means punish the players who go out of their way to cause offence or, as in Babel’s case, question the integrity of referees. But they must also accept that with relations between the traditional media and the game’s biggest names at an all-time low, Twitter is opening lines of communication from players direct to supporters. Instead of being fearful of what’s going to be said next, the FA should embrace it and actively encourage players to join – maybe even their own national manager.

Some may step out of line and use the odd swear word or tell an unseemly joke, but by stamping on each minor misdemeanour the FA are doing a disservice to the game. As PFA deputy chief executive Bobby Barnes said: “It is ironic that at a time when players are accused of being distant and out of touch with supporters that attempts to communicate can bear such potential sanctions.”

From WSC 292 June 2011

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