FootballAnother week another professional footballer facing a red card as a result of ill-advised tweeting; the latest casualty of failing to realise that tweets sent in the heat of the moment can have long lasting consequences on their careers, bank balances and self-esteem even if deleted from their account.

Such is their popularity of football in this country that nearly every tweet a Premiership player sends will be re-tweeted or captured by ‘fans’ on the internet such that they can never be fully erased. And such is the desire to fill column inches that you can be assured that every such mishap will finds its way into the back (or sometimes front) pages.

Last week saw Michael Chopra face the wrath of his manager at Blackpool FC, Paul Ince, after posting a tweet criticising the poor turnout at a recent training session and alleging that the fitness coach took their skills session. The tweet resulted in a £10,000 fine from his club, the maximum possible, and no doubt a serious dent in his relationship with Ince also.

This week’s star player is Jason Puncheon who took to Twitter to question the integrity of former Crystal Palace manager Neil Warnock after his penalty miss in Saturday’s match against Tottenham Hotspur. Warnock denied the accusations and said the matter had been taken up with Puncheon directly on his behalf but did not confirm whether this was through lawyers.

Of course falsely accusing somebody of something they didn’t do can be a costly mistake as Lalit Modi found out when he questioned the integrity of former New Zealand cricketer Chris Cairns in a tweet; 24 words (132 characters) that ended up costing Modi £90,000 in damages and many times this in legal costs (n.b if you can find the Puncheon tweets think twice before re-tweeting them in case Warnock does consider them to be libellous.).

Chopra and Puncheon are by no means the first footballers to get themselves into trouble on Twitter; indeed it is possible to argue they would not even make a first or second team of footballers who have done so.

Twitter has led footballers into trouble with fans as well as managers as is evidenced by former West Bromwich Albion player Peter Odemwingie’s twitter rant during last years’ January transfer window. Odemwingie was refused a transfer request but decided to drive himself to QPR’s Loftus Road in any event to force through a transfer whilst at the same time keeping his followers informed on Twitter. In the end the transfer didn’t go ahead and Odemwingie had to face the remainder of the season playing in front of fans, and with teammates, who knew he didn’t want to be at the club. In the end Odemwingie was sold to Cardiff City in the summer of 2013 but not before the club had disciplined and fined him.

Such is the proclivity for footballers to get into trouble on Twitter that in 2012 the FA felt compelled to issue guidelines concerning the use of social media. Cases involving media comments, including comments on social media are charged under FA Rule E3(1) which states:

A Participant shall at all times act in the best interest of the game and shall not act in any manner which is improper or brings the game into disrepute or use any one, or a combination of, violent conduct, serious foul play, threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour.”

Whilst there is no set sanction the FA guidelines state financial penalties are the most likely.

Those who have received “yellow cards” from the FA for their tweets (for which read a reprimand and significant fine) include:

  • Ryan Babel – one of the first to be fined by the FA, for posting a picture of referee Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt in January 2011 after disagreeing with a number of decisions in a recent match with Liverpool. In its ruling the FA stated “Social network sites, like Twitter, must be regarded as being in the public domain and all participants need to be aware, in the same way as if making a public statement in other forms of media, that any comments would be transmitted to a wider audience. It is there responsibility to ensure only appropriate comments are used.” – fined £10,000;
  • Suso – cautioned by the FA as to future conduct for calling Liverpool teammate Jose Enrique “gay” for having his teeth whitened despite Enrique agreeing on Twitter it was only dressing room banter – fined £10,000;
  • Carlton Cole – reprimanded by the FA for joking on Twitter that immigration had surrounded Wembley after a friendly between England and Ghana – fined £20,000.
  • Rio Ferdinand – agreed with a follower who called Ashley Cole a “choc ice” in relation to his brother Anton’s well publicised dispute with John Terry – fined £45,000; and
  • Ashley Cole – who directed his anger directly at the FA after they ruled he had lied during disciplinary proceedings concerning the same incident – fined £90,000.

Whilst deleted from their accounts the offending tweets remain available to view on the internet if searched for and in the memory of fans, clubs and managers alike.

Some may argue that the fines involved are small change to players who earn more in a week than most do in a year however when looked at in the context of statistics that suggest 3 out of 5 Premier League footballers declare themselves bankrupt within 5 years of retiring, I am sure they would rather still have the money. Add libel damages and costs to a club and FA fine and the numbers can be very significant, even to the wealthiest of players.

Twitter is not only the curse of Premier League footballers; in 2011 aspiring professional footballer, and U17 team captain, Kieran Bowell was released from his contract with Berwick Rangers with immediate effect following a tweet he sent which stated he wished a parcel bomb sent to Celtic manager Neil Lennon had killed him.

Of course footballers, and other high profile individuals, are an easy target as a result of the public fascination with every aspect of their professional and personal lives but the rules concerning libel are equally applicable to everyone else on Twitter, albeit tweets sent after 1 January 2014 will be required to meet the higher thresholds set out in the Defamation Act 2013.

What is clear is that footballers, like everyone else, need to think carefully before they tweet or else they face the prospect of an early bath.

Tim Lowles is a Senior Associate in the Reputation Management team at Collyer Bristow. He can be followed on Twitter at @timlowles.