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Why I would ban professional athletes from social media


Vituperative social media outbursts are one of the few weapons that aggrieved citizens of our supposedly free country have remaining. The democratic right to publicly protest is most definitely prohibited presently, and dangerously so. Social media and its communiques are all that’s left.

But there’s nothing remotely “social”, about the predicament of a partner of a rugby league player – in this instance, Latrell Mitchell’s partner, Brielle Mercy – receiving “death threats” through the magnificent wormhole that Instagram obviously is. All because, it would seem, of Mitchell himself being involved in an objectively terrible on-field incident that almost obliterated an opponent’s right cheekbone and most of the rest of that hemisphere of his face.

Credit:Illustration: Simon Letch

Is that the depth of repugnancy to which our allegedly civilised society has now plummeted? That the partner of someone, would be so mercilessly attacked and threatened with mortal harm because their husband (or wife, or whomever is close to them) recklessly broke the rules of their sport, in a most brutal way and with all the ramifications that flow therefrom?

There can be no doubt that this “social media” is in actuality a bottomless septic tank, full to the brim with what’s horrible in humanity. It’s nothing short of mystifying to me why any professional athlete – or anyone close to them – consciously decides it is a rip-snorting idea to dip their toes in this same toxic morass. While I appreciate the whole athlete/brand concept – and it’s definitely the case that professional athletes enjoy great opportunities to extrapolate their good fame and character for monetary value – what’s the corresponding harm to collective mental wellbeing, and cost?

I started writing for this masthead more than eight years ago, at the time that the *Cronulla Sharks, Essendon Bombers and myriad others were stuck in a doping vortex not entirely of their own making.

(*By way of disclosure, I acted for the Sharks. If only Stephen Dank had a social media account, at which one could aim virtual bazooka bombs….).

Roosters centre Joseph Manu confronts South Sydney’s Latrell Mitchell after the hit that broke his cheekbone.

Roosters centre Joseph Manu confronts South Sydney’s Latrell Mitchell after the hit that broke his cheekbone.Credit:Getty

In 2013 and all the way through to when the Court of Arbitration for Sport delivered its appeal decision in early 2016 regarding Essendon’s 30-odd players I wrote a series of opinion columns, about various angles to the Essendon case and the plight of many players and others duped by Stephen Dank and his merry henchmen. It’s the only topic that’s ever generated proper vitriol and pure vile directed at me on social media.

Personally, I used to think it uproariously hilarious that someone would tweet me all manner of abrupt, intemperate and grubby material challenging – in the most eloquent prose – my knowledge on sport, pharmacology and the law (as well as a whole heap of other nonsense).

From memory, a couple of these dippy geniuses may even have threatened to do me physical harm, in the form of forcibly removing an arm or some other appendage. I remember thinking it was rather obtuse behaviour and I certainly put it all in the filing cabinet under “IDIOT”. But I never felt even remotely threatened. Instead, it all seemed ferociously amusing to me.

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But that’s me. That’s certainly not everyone. Social media is easily weaponised against vulnerable people who deserve nothing of the sort. Yes, laws do exist where such matters can be reported to the police, and charges can be laid. But that’s an incredibly blunt tool which can only be deployed in relation to a small subset of material posted @ a person.

Similarly, the laws of defamation, criminal defamation (yep that’s properly a concept – go have a look at section 529 of the NSW Crimes Act if you don’t believe me) and using social media to menace someone do exist; but they are terribly hard laws to use. Social media companies are invariably impossible to deal with, in terms of having vile and damaging content permanently deleted. And even then it’s just a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

If it were me in charge of an NRL or AFL club or the game themselves, or indeed any other sport, perhaps there would be only one solution: to effectively prohibit the use of social media by players and those close to them.

The repugnancy with which some proponents proceed in using social media at all does dictate that this is indeed the proportionate response.

From the perspective of an athlete, or someone close to them – why would you want to let the public within seven concentric rings of being able to communicate with you directly, if a “death threat” to your partner, for a moment of on-field madness?

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