NHL: a nanny for new media-savvy players?

The NHL is walking a fine line between freedom of speech and censorship.

But, then again, so are other professional sports leagues and, indeed, so is society at large. We’ve been losing the sense of who we are since the arrival of political correctness on the scene. Just imagine a member of a race making a joke about his (or her: see, another nod to political correctness) own race. A humourless member of his own race might take offence and the joke-teller will end up before a human rights commission, a quasi-judiciary body with many judicial powers and no judicial responsibilities. The joke-teller will be guilty until he proves he’s innocent.

But that’s another story for another day.

NHL players took to modern new media technologies like Pooh Bear to honey, and the league has been looking askance since then.

And then it came up with what it thinks to be the most appropriate reaction. Basically, it tells the players of the many risks they might take if their speech becomes too uninhibited, and it reminds them of their obligations as employees.

The latter reminder is quite understandable: no company likes being badmouthed by its own employees, and most companies would just hate being badmouthed by their own employees on company time. A player IS at work from the moment he arrives at the arena for morning practice, until he leaves the premises after the game.

There have been known cases of players tweeting between periods of playoff games. Well, at least they didn’t tweet between their shifts during those games! In any case, they won’t be able to continue with this shocking habit. No more tweeting or facebooking two hours before the game. Get your warmup in, get concentrated on the task at hand. Play some soccer backstage if spirits move you. But no tweeting.

Of course, why the league has to remind its member clubs’ employees about their responsibilities is another question. One would have expected they’ve got enough motivation to be responsible. But, as the saying goes, boys will be boys.

New media are all about the lack of inhibitions, for better or for worse. Good old stuff about bulletin board material that would rile up an opposing team and bring pain upon the material’s author, that stuff gets peels of derisive laughter in return these days. Quite rightly, too. If a professional athlete needs insults from an opposing athlete as a tool to get motivated, that athlete should begin looking around for another profession.

Professional hockey players have been known as nice enough lads, friendly, outgoing, but terrible interviews in most cases. Yes, there definitely is no I in team, but Wayne Gretzky’s habit of speaking about himself in third person singular was perfectly annoying. Or: a player speaking of his injury in first person plural (such as: “We will do this or that”) sounds more like a member of the medical profession than a professional athlete. Except in exceptional situations, one-on-one with a journalist they trust, hockey players prefer clichés that won’t get them in trouble. That is why players such as Brett Hull or Jeremy Roenick have been so popular. They never succumbed to this oppressive code of omertà (Italian Mafia’s habit of keeping one’s mouth shut or else).

And into this comes the liberating spirit of social media. A breath of fresh air.

Athletes can talk directly to their fans. And their fans can talk directly to them. Nothing beats this direct contact. It promotes the game, and the club, and the league, too. What is better than a recent Twitter admission by two Colorado players that their team had stunk out the joint in a game against Los Angeles, but they solemnly swear nothing like this will happen again. Ever. And they addressed it to fans whose hard-earned dollars went to waste through no fault of their own, making the apology sound even more sincere.

Of course, if a player writes his club lost because he had only 90 seconds of ice time, and how is he supposed to help his team on that limited opportunity is beyond him, he would land in a soup. More with his teammates and, potentially, coaching staff, than with his club’s management. His teammates and his coaches see him every day in practices. If anyone should know how he copes, it would be these people.

More enlightened clubs have gone about the thing the most enlightened way: do as you please, they tell their players, so long as you don’t hurt anybody. And do it on your own time. The smartest clubs have gone one step further: they’ve hired new staff specializing in social media and began flooding social networking sites themselves, too.

The entire thing carries considerable risk with it. Social media networks have been known as spots that don’t care much for security. Can you imagine a young player’s shock when he’s told he’s got a page on Facebook, while he is perfectly certain he’s never created one? Can you imagine a grizzled general manager’s surprise when he finds out he’s got a Twitter account where he moans and chastises himself for trades he made (and didn’t make), not to mention his draft choices?

The clubs thus afflicted sent these matters to the NHL’s own security people, and they, in turn, forwarded them to appropriate police authorities. No results announced yet, which is quite normal, considering that neither of the two incidents was publicized too much, and who knows how many more have gone either unnoticed or unreported.

In any case, social media is here. Whether to stay, now, that would be a different question. What if people realize that they’re becoming friends with someone who they think lives on another continent – and then they find they’ve been talking to a neighbour who’s been living across their own street all along? That embarrassment in and of itself should be reason enough to think again about social media and – especially – re-consider our own participation.

But, as mentioned, social media is here. Say hi to your favourite players on Facebook, and tweet them if you didn’t like their new shoes.

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