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Basketball Draft Football

Tampering in the Age of Social Media

By: Caleb J. Duncan

All signs are pointing to Zion Williamson being the first pick in the 2019 NBA draft. It’s easy to see why as the Duke forward has been absolutely dominant on the court. Any team would immediately improve with the skills of Williamson. Sure, some teams need him more than others, but you cannot deny how well he plays the game and the hope is that his stat-stuffing game can transfer to the NBA in June.

Thanks to social media we can all enjoy Williamson’s abilities on the court by looking at clips of his dunks or steals. It’s not just fans watching him though. Scouts, coaches, players and general managers are keeping a close eye on his development knowing he will be playing in the NBA soon.

One such player to see Zion Williamson in action was LeBron James who, with agent Rich Paul (yes, that same Rich Paul), got to see him play while in North Carolina for the All-Star game. The sighting of James and Paul at the game immediately had people believe that it was a kind of recruitment trip aimed to bring Williamson onboard. Both men quickly squashed that idea but given the recent history of Rich Paul and the Lakers attempting to get Anthony Davis (oh, and the accusations involving tampering with Ben Simmons), it’s not too surprising that many might jump to that conclusion.

Social media has changed the game. Players and coaches can use social media platforms to interact with fans and provide their own opinions about injuries, trades, pop culture, or their own personal lives. Before this the most we got to see from a player was when they were… well, playing.

The NBA is strict when it comes to tampering as simple comments or nods can result in fines. If we switch to the NFL you can see several instances of recruitment on Twitter:

While the NFL may not impose penalties as harshly as the NBA (even though their rules are clear as day you cannot entice someone to join your team), it’s clear that players want to use their platforms to help their teams succeed. The question is if this is OK?

Antonio Brown is easily considered one of the best receivers in the league right now and has been since he joined the NFL. Since he is leaving the Steelers during the offseason many players will see an immediate chance to improve their offense. Patrick Peterson, for example, plays on the Arizona Cardinals who are arguably one of the worst NFL teams right now. Having an offensive weapon like Brown would quickly kick start their offense. No one would argue that it’s wrong for Peterson (or the many other players who tweeted) to want Brown on his team, but given the tampering rules for the NFL and NBA it’s hard to look at instances like that and not ask “wait, can he do that?”

Social media isn’t going away either. Outspoken players are routinely required to maintain a professional demeanor on the court/field, but when they are off they are entitled to live their own personal lives the way they see fit. It’s clearly a grey area because social media is the player’s personal medium for outreach, but the rules of the game clearly extend off the field as well.

Is it fair to tell a player what they can and cannot say on social media? Sure, their job is unlike most jobs with a spotlight on them at every turn, but they’re entitled to their own opinions and beliefs like the rest of us. In the days before social media if a player were to call another player and tell him, point blank, that he should come to play for his team then the rules of tampering were pretty clear. A call was made and the attempt to recruit was clear. With social media comments (and even emojis), players are using their personal platform to recruit players (or, in some cases, allude to recruitment) which is muddying the waters on what constitutes tampering.

In the wake of a back-and-forth on Twitter between Chandler Parsons and C.J. McCollum a couple years ago, NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum issued the following statement:

“While we understand that the use of social media by teams, including during games, is an important part of our business, the inappropriate use of social media can damage the reputation of the NBA, its teams and its players. Recently, social media postings (e.g., on Twitter) by some teams have crossed the line between appropriate and inappropriate. In addition to other concerns, such conduct by teams can result in ‘Twitter wars’ between players that can cause further reputational damage and subject players to discipline by the League.

As a result, we want teams to be aware of the NBA’s rules with respect to the use of social media by teams. As with in-game entertainment, teams are prohibited from mocking and/or ridiculing opponents (including teams, players, team personnel (including owners) and opponents’ home cities) and game officials on social media in any form, including through statements, pictures or videos.”

That rule is clearly defined: don’t be a jerk on social media because you are representing a business. This kind of transparency on what a player can and cannot say should be clearly defined in terms of recruitment and tampering as well.

The change needs to happen soon so that players can understand what they are allowed to say on social media. The change would most likely have to happen one of two ways:

  1. Leagues update their rules so that they clearly define what a player cannot say on social media (since the rule is written generically right now)
  2. Leagues simply relax their tampering rules when it comes to social media

The first option clearly presents a lot of problems. Issues of free speech can come into play or, as mentioned above, players can simply argue it’s their own personal platform and should, therefore, be allowed to conduct it how they see fit when they are “off the clock.”

The second option, while easier to adjust to, could move players in the opposite direction where we could potentially see unabashed recruitment from players. This goes back to my first question – is this OK? The leagues clearly say no, but players and public opinion may differ.

At the end of the day, the NBA and NFL are businesses and as a result, can conduct business the way they see fit. However, as I said earlier, the job of working in professional sports is unlike any other and therefore we need to approach the rules in a different way to avoid the increasing number of fines and upset players and fans.

To put it plainly: this problem cannot be ignored. The NFL and NBA need to catch up to the 21st century and understand that professional athletes have this platform and plan to use it for their team’s benefit. If the leagues don’t want this then the onus is on them to clear things up.


Featured Photo Credit: ABC30.com

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