SIG Talks Sport and the Law

09 Jan 2015

We're back with our second column for SIG Talks Sports Law, talking this week about social media use by sporting personalities, and the legal risk it poses for sports organisations. We are currently witnessing the most phenomenal growth in the use of social media globally as well as in South Africa.  Social media across its various platforms, unlocks significant, previously untapped marketing, advertising and communication channels for sports organisations and participants BUT, its use, particularly by sports personalities, opens up a Pandora’s box of potential legal liability for the individual and for the associated sports club, franchise, team or federation.

So, what is the scope of the social media landscape in South Africa ?

Local technology market research firm, World Wide Worx and online media monitoring company, Fuseware, recently released their annual report on the South African social media landscape. Some interesting stats include:

  • The Google-owned YouTube increased their user base by 53% to 7.2m users;
  • Facebook still remains South Africa’s favourite social media platform with 11,8m users;
  • Twitter’s growth slowed but still showed an increase of 20% in the past 12 months to 6.6m users. 

And to what extent do global and local sports personalities use social media?

According to, a real time global social media analytics platform website, the following are the top three global and South African Facebook and Twitter users with the greatest number of fans and followers respectively (as at time of publication):

Facebook fans: celebrities - sport star category


  1. Cristiano Ronaldo – 104 519 643 fans

  2. Leo Messi – 77 120 836 fans

  3. David Beckham – 51 439 808 fans

South Africa

  1. AB de Villiers – 265 384 fans(position 946 globally)

  2. Jordy Smith – 219 202 fans (position 1 028 globally)

  3. Teko Modise – 134 141 fans (position 1 175 globally)

Twitter followers: celebrities - sport star category


  1. Cristiano Ronaldo – 32 465 329 followers

  2. Kaka – 21 730 682 followers

  3. LeBron James – 17 665 984 followers

South Africa

  1. AB de Villiers – 1 615 147 followers (position 177 globally)

  2. Graeme Smith – 735 202 followers (position 434 globally)

  3. Jacques Kallis – 650 593 followers (position 499 globally)

So what do these stats tell us, apart from the fact that the use of social media across the Twitter and Facebook platforms by our local sports celebrities and the corresponding number of followers and fans, lag far behind global sports celebrities ?

Our local sports stars are increasingly using social media as a means to communicate. This use is not necessarily part of a planned public relations media effort and is often more of an impulsive response, which from a sports organisation’s perspective, is a significant area of risk. The reality of social media’s reach and inexorable speed exacerbates this risk.

For sports organisations, social media has provided opportunities to communicate directly with fans and stakeholders like never before, while simultaneously expanding their reach to new audiences that were previously difficult, if not impossible, to reach. As such, the advent of social media has allowed sport to develop more sophisticated and targeted forms of marketing and advertising via individual interactions across a wide range of platforms. The proliferation of use of mobile devices where such technology was previously inaccessible and the ability of mobile devices to access the internet, has greatly accelerated this process.

The reality is, as useful as social media is, the use of social media by sports men and women creates legal risk, not only for themselves as individuals (defamation comes to mind), but also for the clubs, brands, sporting organisations and the sport they represent.

In September 2010, England cricketer Kevin Pietersen, came under criticism for this foul-mouthed twitter rant, after his poor batting form saw him dropped from England’s One Day International squad and Twenty20 team:

Yep… Done for the rest of the summer!! Man of the World Cup T20 and dropped from the T20 side too… It’s a f**ck up!!

The outburst angered the National Selector, Geoff Miller, and England Coach, Andy Flower. Pietersen issued this apologetic explanation for his ranting tweet: ”It was something that wasn’t meant for the public domain and I apologise for it entering the public domain and I also want to apologise for the language I used.”

In 2010, Stephanie Rice, the Australian Olympic triple gold medal swimmer, came under fire after posting a homophobic tweet after the Wallabies had defeated the Springboks:  “Suck on that fag**ts” she tweeted.  Apart from losing a lucrative sponsorship deal with luxury car maker, Jaguar, her image took a battering and she later broke down in a press conference offering a wrenching apology. Her comment angered gay rights groups, with former Australian rugby league star, Ian Roberts, himself gay, labelling her an “idiot”.

Surely sports stars realise that twitter IS the public domain? The reality is that they sometimes don’t, especially in the heat of the moment. The perception of twitter and its informal online tone of 140-character chat, makes some high-profile sportsmen and women underestimate the extreme ‘public-ness’ of twitter.

So how should sports organisations guard against such legal risk materialising?

  1. By implementing a social media policy across the organisation, governing players’  professional and personal use and obligations towards their social media usage (this should talk to the federation / governing body social media policy);
  2. By inserting a social media clause in player agreements governing the professional and personal use of social media by the player;
  3. By inserting a morality clause in player employment agreements in terms of which the employer can terminate the player’s employment agreement in the event of the player bringing the employer (club / sporting organisation / federation) or the sport into disrepute on moral grounds through inter alia the making of an immoral statement on social media;
  4. By educating players on their different professional sporting personae (1. club / franchise, 2. national and 3. individual) and the responsibilities attached to each;
  5. By educating players generally on the effective use of social media;
  6. Actively managing players’ social media activities (and even their accounts if need be).

The positive benefits of social media to the sports industry are there for all to see BUT it takes one irresponsible tweet to destroy a player’s name and reputation (even a career!), one irresponsible posting of a compromising photograph on Facebook to rile a team sponsor and place a sponsorship in jeopardy, one crazy video uploaded onto YouTube to bring a sport into disrepute.

There is considerable legal risk for sportsmen and women in the use of social media and more so for sporting organisations. Make sure you guard against it by taking appropriate measures, putting policies in place, inserting appropriate clauses in player agreements and most importantly, educating your players on social media use.


John van den Aardweg

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