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Athletes & Social Media

Freedom of speech in the world of sports is a very complex thing. This is due to sports usually being seen as a break from the real world, but not everyone feels that way. Many athletes have taken to the field, the press, and even social media to make sure their voices are heard. Do they have the right to do so though?

This is where freedom of speech becomes quite difficult. While an athlete does have the right to speak their mind, it doesn’t mean they are protected from consequences. Furthermore, their contracts likely include clauses that make saying certain things on social media a punishable offense. 

Brooklyn Nets points guard, Kyrie Irving was recently suspended for a minimum of five games after tweeting an image and link to a film on Twitter. He was asked several times about the post and the film by several media outlets for the documentary’s portrayal of historical events regarding Jewish people. Kyrie was ultimately suspended. Should he have been protected by freedom of speech and not punished for his actions?

“While we appreciate the fact that he agreed to work with the Brooklyn Nets and the Anti-Defamation League to combat antisemitism and other forms of discrimination, I am disappointed that he has not offered an unqualified apology and more specifically denounced the vile and harmful content contained in the film he chose to publicize,” Adam Silver said in a statement.

Keep in mind that he didn’t say anything antisemitic. He just posted a link and image to a documentary. He didn’t exactly endorse the film; just tweeted it.

Do sports want to set this precedent where simply tweeting something is a suspendible offense? It’s a very grey area and it’s going to have to be explored over the next few years. Is this taking away an athlete’s freedom of speech? Or, does the team have a right to control who plays for them?

The problem with the idea of freedom of speech is that it involves other people and their money. These owners and officials have money, reputations, and viewership numbers on the line. This means they don’t want to deal with anything that could adversely affect that. Unfortunately for athletes looking to make a statement about a cause, this usually leaves them silenced. Or, they use very vague responses.

And that’s not right either. There needs to be a middle ground in this grand equation. Where should it be though? Should the Brooklyn Nets have stood behind him? What about the fact that the tweet was still up for days after the backlash? Is that something that should just be let go?

What we all need to keep in mind is that these teams have an image to maintain. They have sponsors, television deals, donors, fans, and several other people they need to keep happy. If something happens that starts to tarnish the image of that reputation, there are going to be consequences for it.

Irving’s consequences include a list of six items he must complete before being able to officially return to the Brooklyn Nets. This is all according to The Athletic, who also claim that other NBA owners don’t want him. One even reportedly claimed that his tweet will be the end of his career in the league.

This is where things go a little overboard with this idea of consequences. It is worth mentioning that the Nets reportedly created a list with the idea that Irving would be uncooperative. Not only does that mean they are essentially setting him up to fail, but the rest of the league also wants nothing to do with him.

Is that right? Shouldn’t there be a chance of redemption after his actions? The perceived notion that no one wants to give him a fair chance to do this is kind of disturbing. They all seem to want to see him fail. Consequences for your actions are one thing, but ruining a career is another.

When you become an athlete, you start to represent an organization. You became a walking billboard for the team so to speak. This is why words and actions have consequences. It’s not just the athlete’s reputation on the line, it’s anyone that represents them or does business with them.

There should be a middle ground though. One tweet shouldn’t be the end of your career. Furthermore, the mediashouldn’t be stoking outrage with their constant reporting on the subject. Lastly, punishing athletes for what they didn’t say is ridiculous and sets a dangerous precedent as we move into the future of social media.

Remember that freedom of speech is the ability to say what you want without censorship or restraint. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for what is said or actions. That also doesn’t mean anyone has to stand by you or continue to represent you. On the other hand, there needs to be a road to redemption and not just an outright blackballing from the league over a tweet.

Photography by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

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