ESPN, NFL Make Misstep with Twitter Rules

At least for a week, sports has helped catapult ‘Twitter’ past ‘Google’ in America’s mainstream technology vernacular. ESPN, NFL, reporters, players, leagues, teams – everywhere you turn it seems someone is making policy, discussing a policy, or defying one. It’s outrageous. Warrants a multi-part blog because there’s so much to comment on.

First, the live microphone analogy that I saw mentioned, but believe is incredibly accurate. The NFL and its teams are scrambling to make ridiculous policies that have no substantive justification. They clearly don’t have a strong sense for the medium yet, and want to mitigate risk. If coaches don’t want Tweeting during practice or games to make sure focus stays on the field, that’s perfectly reasonable. However, banning it while in the building or during business hours is arbitrary, and displays ignorance. Twitter is no different than the live mic the media sticks in front of players faces each day. Anything they say becomes a matter of record the whole world can hear. Twitter is essentially a distribution extension of that microphone. Players can now get the message out faster, cheaper, and to a broader audience – the same paradigm shift the Internet has brought to almost every medium, faster, cheaper, wider. The NFL and its teams should focus on training players to treat it like a live mic, and they should extend the rules that currently apply to traditional media coverage to cover Twitter usage.  The times when its fair game to give an interview, or when the media has open access, should be fair game to use Twitter. Whatever they say on Twitter, should be held to the same criteria as comments made to traditional media. If a quote about something would yield a fine, then a Tweet saying the same thing also should yield a fine. Similarly if it shows up in print and its not a problem, it should be fine on Twitter.

Where the NFL really stepped over the line is with 10 teams banning reporters from public practices. That’s ludicrous, and borderline infringement on first amendment rights, which should extend to cover this real-time new medium. Do the teams prevent cell phone usage by reporters, or emails? What’s the difference? Better yet, how do they plan to enforce it? Big brother can watch the people there, but reporters can call someone at the office to post tweets, or just email them the Tweets and tell users to look at a different account. By unfairly banning its use, NFL teams are inciting reporters and players to find more ways to break the rules, and in the process providing unfavorable coverage of the brand. Its that old axiom, the more you try to impose rules on kids, the more they try to rebel.

Many people overreacted to ESPN’s stance. Reading the guidelines sent out, it reinforces the ramifications of using this medium, and how employees should use it, not that they can’t use it. In fact, it sounds like typical employee handbook stuff, and is in line with the live mic example above. ESPN just extended its employee media policy to include Twitter, and that is perfectly within their right. We’ll see if it affects how their reporters used it, some of whom were really leveraging the tool.

The fact that ESPN and the NFL both made public moves, exemplifies where each stands as an organization. They are both industry leaders, the proverbial 900-lb. gorilla in the room. If nothing changes they win. They don’t need to go on the cutting edge because neither is trying to catch anyone, it’s the other leagues and media outlets that need to try aggressive measures to catch them. Therefore, ESPN and the NFL have more to lose than to gain from being a first mover, which is evident in each being among the first to pull back publicly. If ESPN had banned reporters, and it turned out to be a bad decision 3 months from now and they decided to reverse it, the Sports Guy would still get all his Followers back and more. They don’t need Twitter to build an audience. In fact, one would argue Twitter needs them to help add value to a product that has yet to find a sustainable revenue stream.

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