Where’s the Sportsmanship in Policing Social Media?

Free Speech or Censorship? Which side of the pitch are you on?

We all know that the social web has an indelible effect on your digital footprint. But what does this mean in real life, in the offline world? Well this week Sean MacCumhaill’s dual footballer David White found out.

In very many cases the social web is a positive place to advance your career by building an impressive online reputation as a thought leader in your area of expertise. For the ‘celebrity’ scene it is dogged with trolls and extensive anti social media behaviour.

However, in many other cases, largely due to inexperience, lack of knowledge or even lack of common sense – highly skilled or potentially successful professionals are damaging their own futures – right now!

It seems that off the pitch sports people are also getting into hot water as a result of their social media activities. The latest in the line of red cards has been shown to David White who this week was given a 24-week suspension by the Donegal GAA County Board on the back on a Tweet criticizing the organisation for not playing extra time in a drawn match between Ardara and Naomh Conaill, but instead opting for a replay. However speaking to me today a County Board representative clarified that the suspension was a result of the Tweet plus further correspondence with White.

Subsequent to the Tweet by David White to the Donegal GAA Twitter account there was further correspondence between him and the County Board. It was this further correspondence along with the Tweet that led to the 24-week ban. The GAA cannot make a statement at this time as there is a hearing ongoing.”


The matches are being played at a time when the club season is reaching its pinnacle with players continuing to travel home from outside the county for weekly training. It seems this was the gripe White had but decided to vent his frustration publicly and not privately.

This follows the case of Ballinderry Shamrocks players Aaron Devlin, Michael Conlan and Gareth McKinless earlier this month, who were suspended for 48 weeks each following the Derry county final. Inter-county player Devlin has been banned for a subsequent derogatory tweet (since deleted) about the match officials, who awarded a disputed late goal that was enough for Slaughtneil to win the title on a 1-08 to 0-09 scoreline.

So are these players right to go ‘Twitter-mad’ or should they have their rant offline and face-to-face with County Board officials? Well here is the line in the official policy that it seems the GAA players crossed.

“All GAA members are subject to the GAA Code of Behaviour when online, even when they are not acting on behalf of the Association.”

Here’s the deal in my opinion.

All GAA players should consider themselves role models for young people but more than that, they hold positions as local sports stars and people of all ages will respect them for their sporting prowess. However, in David’s and the Ballinderry Shamrocks players’ case their approach to their online reputation is perhaps a concept they haven’t yet considered?

Here’s where I open the broader discussion on ‘what does your online reputation mean to you and the people or organisations you represent?’ For me this is the real debate. It is my argument that technology is moving faster than education and what we are left with are digital natives with huge naivety around managing their digital footprint.

While David and all GAA volunteers are being asked to read, absorb and abide by the 24-page Social Media Guidelines – have they? Do they understand them? Have they even been trained in managing your online reputation?

I was hired earlier this year by a third level institution as ‘punishment’ and I delivered a day-long masterclass in Managing Your Online Reputation. Five students in their twenties had brought the organisation into disrepute on the back of their social media activities. These are highly educated young people a mere year or two away from entering the professional world taking up state jobs. Quite simply these students ‘didn’t think’ that their jokes on Facebook and Twitter would result in them facing possible expulsion and their careers over before they had even started.

So back to David White the Donegal GAA County Board and that Tweet.

The County Board have a right to be upset by the Tweet but I think they need to go further and up-skill all their representatives – mostly volunteers holding a range of roles from player to manager to youth officer to trainer to match officials.

You can’t have it both ways as the Social Media Policy suggests – we want all members to promote the GAA but only do so when you are saying good things about us?

“The world of social and digital media is an enjoyable and engaging place. As a GAA official, volunteer, player or member, you will often encounter this world. This document has been put together to help, educate and guide those who use social media in an official GAA capacity. The benefits for the GAA are vast when used in a responsible manner and in compliance with the guidelines and policies.” (GAA Social Media Policies & Guidelines)

That’s the background but what’s the future? Will we see a situation where half a team is banned due to activity off the pitch?

I’ve taken a more forensic look at this situation analyzing the ‘offensive’ tweet in question.

David White speaks his mind.

The Tweet:

This tweet has since been deleted from David’s own Twitter account however it resurfaced after the ban.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 13.43.17

So how far did David White’s Tweet Travel?

I’ve had a look at the reach of David’s offensive Tweet when it resurfaced from a journalists’ Twitter account after the ban was handed down. Donegal News reporter Chris McNulty re-tweeted the original tweet on 20th November 2014.

It had 4,992 impressions, which means that it was delivered to the Twitter news stream 4,992 times.

4,744 Twitter accounts were reached, which means 4,744 individuals or organisations had the tweet arrive in their news stream.

After receiving his ban, David is clearly unimpressed and jumps social networking sites to vent his continued frustration. This time he is on his personal Facebook profile.

29 people like the post while one person shared it. If we consider that we all have on average 300 Friends on Facebook the reach of this post would be at almost 10,000.

DW Date and Time

David White Facebook Post



Two hours later David uploads a more composed message, which is a photograph with a quote from George Washington.

“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

I was able to view David’s Facebook profile, even though we are not friends as his privacy settings are wide open. So while the Tweet is gone, his frustration remains for all to see on Facebook.

Screenshot 2014-11-21 19.35.50

Social Media Roles & Responsibilities

It’s not enough for organisations – whether private, public or not-for-profit to write intricate social media policies and guidelines, they must adequately upskill their staff, volunteers, associates so that they are protected from social media biting them in the proverbial backside.

Remember technology is moving faster than education in the digital sphere and to assume that everyone will read or understand a social media policy will, as the saying goes, ‘make an ass out of you and me.’


About the Author

Joanne is founder and lead trainer at Digital Training Institute, which up-skills individuals and companies in all aspects of digital marketing, social media, online PR and online reputation. She also develops and implements digital marketing strategies for companies.

Joanne is also co-founder of new EdTech StartUp Webiket which has developed an e-learning course for teens and tweens called Young Minds Online. Joanne holds masters degrees in journalism and digital marketing and will publishe her first book in January 2015 – Social Media Under Investigation – Law Enforcement and the Social Web.



@tweetsbyJSB on Twitter



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