September 15, 2011
When the NHL announced that, for the first time, it was implementing a social media policy for players, the concerns and backlash were predictable. None of us want to be deprived of Ilya Bryzgalov's(notes) observations on cross-dressing or Logan Couture's(notes) reviews of "Entourage" or whatever happens to leave the mind of Paul Bissonnette(notes) and enter the digital realm.
The good news is that the new policy doesn't completely muzzle them.
The bad news is that it's been made crystal clear that Big Brother's got an eye on Twitter and Facebook, watching for NHL players that share a little too much with their fans.
Sources close to the league told Yahoo! Sports on Thursday that the policy has been in the works since before the summer. It's been issued by the NHL and precludes any restrictions teams attempt to enforce on their players, as the policy is a result of collective bargaining with the NHLPA.
Basically, the policy breaks down into two components: League mandated blackouts on use of social media, and suggestions to players and team personnel regarding "proper" use.
Currently, every player and team's approach to social media is different. Most feeds on Twitter, for example, are monitored by team public relations staffers (such as Bissonnette's) but written by the players. Other feeds, especially for prospects with fewer followers, only come into focus for team personnel when they say or do something that causes a stir.
The new NHL policy institutes a "total blackout on social media on game days," beginning two hours before opening faceoff and ending after the player has fulfilled his postgame media obligations. This applies to players competing in that night's game; scratches and injured players are exempt, as Paul Bisonnette of the Phoenix Coyotes noted Wednesday night:
The policy from the NHL:
Use of social media by Hockey Operations personnel is prohibited on game day (including all preseason, regular reason and playoff games but excluding All-Star events or other exhibitions) beginning at 11 a.m. on the day of the game and ending after postgame media obligations.
Use of social media by Players scheduled to play in a particular game (including all preseason, regular reason and playoff games, but excluding All-Star events or other exhibitions) is prohibited beginning two hours prior to the opening faceoff and ending upon cessation of postgame media obligations.
Non-compliance with the preceding sentence may result in fines.
Essentially, this is an extension of existing policy for players, who aren't typically available to the media hours before a game anyway.
Now, why is a pregame social media blackout seen as a necessity by the NHL? Here are three parties the blackouts will affect, along with players:
Opponents. The problem with some athletes is that they don't understand who's listening. Sure, there are only 5,000 people on a Twitter feed or, yeah, you only have 100 Facebook friends. But information travels fast and easy. The blackouts prevent someone from putting his team at a competitive disadvantage; or, more cynically, putting out false information to muddy the facts for an opponent.
Bookies. Oh, sorry Sally Sunshine, did you forget that professional sports wagering is a multibillion-dollar industry? Players who offer information about injuries or lineup changes hours before a game can influence betting. Like every other league, the NHL does what it can to keep its players as insulated from that world as possible, so this is another means to accomplish that.
Media. There are always clashes between traditional media and NHL teams about availability after games and how the news from that availability is disseminated. It's hard enough for reporters on deadline that nearly every interview is recorded by the team's communications staff and uploaded that night; if players were able to issue quotes before the media availability, it would really complicate the process. Yeah, I know, "cry us a river people paid to watch games for a living" … but that's the reality of it. This facet of the social media policy has been lingering for quite a while in media circles.
So those are the restrictions spelled out by the policy; what about the guidelines?
Here they are:
1. All of a player's communications are on the record and can be archived. A handy reminder that a deleted tweet can always be located and a Facebook page can be easily screen-capped.
2. A player must take personal responsibility for comments, making sure it's known that they are not the view of the team or of the NHL.
3. Respect your audience. Make sure facts are accurate and don't engage in insulting behavior. The actual line in the document: "Don't be afraid to be yourself, but do so respectfully."
4. Do not divulge proprietary information, whether its lineup changes or coaching strategy or injuries.
5. Stop and think before you post. Use best judgment.
Real common sense stuff, but you hope players won't overcompensate. At the core of all of this: The NHL will treat content on social media and micro-blogs the same way it treats comments made in interviews. If a player or coach trashes a referee on his Facebook page, he could be fined.
The term "may result in discipline" is explicit in the policy.
• • •
So it's not draconian, but it's also not without a chilling effect. The NHL was one of the last leagues to have such a policy, if only because it has long felt its players don't engage in the usual politics and taunting that other athletes have used, say, Twitter for.
What you hope for as a fan is that these players understand the boundaries the league's setting are for the protection of information about the games. Don't tweet about the lineup. Don't tweet about injuries. Don't give away state secrets on Facebook. Few do anyway, but now it's policy.
What you don't hope for is that the threat of fines for some of this stuff tempers all of their commentary. Say what you will about the Dan Ellis affair, but we'd hate to see a player think twice about attacking escrow because the suggested guidelines indicate it'd be "disrespectful" or somehow bad for the league's image.
And we'd obviously hate to see the league try to temper that language.
NHL VP Brendan Shanahan(notes) has made social media training a part of R&D camp for the last two years, and it could be a formalized part of player education for rookies. Seeing the policy, it doesn't strike me as being anything a giant, multinational corporation wouldn't apply to its employees.
But if it ever extends beyond the blackout, or silences candid players on social media with whom the league doesn't agree, then it harms the relationships being built between these players and fans and, in turn, with the fans and the NHL.
We can live with James van Riemsdyk(notes) not being able to tweet Philadelphia Flyers injury reports an hour before the game; it would suck if a personable kid gaining fans through social media suddenly felt censored because the league put it all in writing.