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Twitter & Pro Athletes: How Should Sports Leagues Respond When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong?

There are times in the Twitterverse when keeping it real can go horribly, horribly wrong.

A few weeks ago, Toronto Blue Jays manager John Farrell said he wasn't going to mandate his players stay off Twitter, but also said publicly that he'd advise against using the micro-blogging platform because athletes would just be setting "themselves up for another distraction."

But imposing a mandate wouldn't exactly be groundbreaking: the MLB, NBA, and NFL already have policies in place limiting the use of social media for league employees and, in the case of the NFL, for media as well. Clearly, there are times in the Twitterverse when keeping it real can go wrong and pro sports leagues are engaging in a little pre-emptive damage control.

So this brings up a question: how far should pro sports leagues go in restricting the use of Twitter among their players, if at all? And should there be consequences in place for players that do make comments the league would prefer they not make?

Here's just a quick look at what various professional sports leagues have done about. Many of these are old stories, but reflect the range of ways leagues (and college programs) could approach this matter:

Overview: North American pro sports leagues in a twitter over tweeting | Reuters

MLB: Why a Reported MLB Twitter Crackdown Matters -- The Sports Section
There are several theories why such a policy would be instituted (or, if you doubt Gleeman's story and are on the collective mass hallucination side, at least considered): Gleeman notes that is putting a Twitter feed aggregator on their home page (something ESPN does, and something few people we've ever met actually use), and A's relief pitcher Brad Ziegler caused a small ruckus last week with comments on his Twitter about the anti-immigration law in Arizona and his disappointment with the fan base in Oakland.

MLS: Dynamo's Ching fined by MLS for Twitter comment | Soccer | - Houston Chronicle
Major League Soccer didn’t use Twitter to fire this message to players and coaches, but it got its point across Thursday just the same: Beware what you tweet. Dynamo forward Brian Ching was the first one to get it, along with a $500 fine for what the league deemed public criticism of an MLS official through a comment — or tweet — on the popular social networking site.

NBA: Shaq gives OK to NBA's new Twitter policy

NFL: NFL Institutes Harsh Anti-Twitter Policy
According to CNET News, the folks mentioned above must stop tweeting 90 minutes prior to a game and cannot resume until post-game interviews are complete. These limitations are supposed to protect "[longstanding] policies prohibiting play-by-play descriptions of NFL games in progress," according to a statement from NFL officials.

NFL Institutes Harsh Anti-Twitter Policy

NHL: Inside the NHL's social media innovations, growing pains - Puck Daddy - NHL Blog - Yahoo! Sports
DiLorenzo sees these outspoken players as exceptions to the rule. "It's not in the NHL player's DNA to be self promotional. It's foolish to think that we'll never have a problem, but it's just not who our players are."

College: Good cop, bad cop with NBA Twitter policy -- reporting from the Jock-o-sphere - ESPN
Mike Leach's response to his players' tweets? An outright ban for his whole team. No tweeting anytime, anywhere. It's a bold move, but it's also one a college coach can make. Unlike an NBA or NFL player who is looking to grow and enhance his brand, or who is eyeing outside monetary options or personal interests away from the team, college players don't have that flexibility with which to argue back at a coach, given their amateur status.

English Premier League: BBC Sport - Football - Twitter ye not?

For the likes of Babel, Ferdinand and Savage, with each player having hundreds of thousands of followers, Twitter allows them to disseminate their message on their own terms to fans without having to go through pesky journalists.

But for those journalists - and most major media correspondents use Twitter - players' tweets have provided a steady stream of stories.

That means players are learning that with interaction comes responsibility.

Miscellaneous organizations: Twitter Tips: How to Write a Twitter Policy for Your Employees
"Some people make the argument: If companies aren't screening phone conversations, why would they worry about Twitter so much?" says Caroline Dangson (@carolinedangson), a social media analyst at IDC. "But Twitter is so open. What you say can spread virally. It's searchable and stays online. It's different than live conversation on the phone." After contacting analysts and examining the Twitter use policies that some companies have created, we found some common guidelines that can help. As you'll learn, in the spirit of social media, they should be constructed with input from the bottom-up. You should also expect some hiccups along the way.

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So to tweet or not to tweet - that is the question sports leagues are struggling to figure out regarding their players.