10 April 2015


Daniel Gallan

It only takes a few seconds and 140 characters, but an inappropriate tweet has the potential to ruin a professional athlete's career. With the world's eyes glued to social media, the psychological, social and financial dangers are real. Tracey Veivers, head psychologist for the Brisbane Lions (Australian Football League) discusses how new technology has influenced her job and caused her more headaches than she would have envisaged.

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo is the most popular sportsman in the world. With close to 34.5 million followers on Twitter and over 100 million likes on Facebook, the Portuguese superstar's every move is in the public's eye.    Image supplied by Action Images/ Gregorio Lopez

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo is the most popular sportsman in the world. With close to 34.5 million followers on Twitter and over 100 million likes on Facebook, the Portuguese superstar's every move is in the public's eye.   Image supplied by Action Images/ Gregorio Lopez

When it was announced that South African comedian Trevor Noah will replace John Stewart as host of the Daily Show after 16 years, the Rainbow Nation celebrated its new favourite son.

It wasn't long though until some old tweets emerged and went viral, causing a social media storm that threatened his new job before he even started. A few of them had sexist and anti-Semitic undertones like 2009’s “Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!” and 2011’s ““Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I’m sexy!” – fat chicks everywhere.”

Whether or not you find these tweets offensive or not is irrelevant. What is important to note is how the simple act of a social media post can create a controversy and land a celebrity in hot water.

Sports stars are not exempt from this. Since 2011, the English Football Association has raked in over £350 000 from Twitter fines, with former Chelsea left back Ashley Cole’s £90 000 fine in 2012 for a foul mouthed tirade aimed at the FA the most costly. Also in 2012, Greek triple jumper Paraskevi Papachristou was expelled from competing at the London Olympic Games for tweeting: “With so many Africans in Greece… the West Nile mosquitos will at least eat homemade food!!!”

Since the rise of social media and especially Twitter, sportsmen and women have had to be extremely careful about what they post. Like the rest of us, celebrities are prone to thoughtless outbursts but as Tracey Veivers, head psychologist for the Brisbane Lions in the Australian Football League (AFL) explains, sports stars represent a brand.

“They have to understand that they are a marketable product,” she says. “The team they represent is a brand and therefore they become a part of that brand and are accountable for it. Social media has created a platform for the most impulsive whims to be aired to the entire world and sportsmen and women have to be so careful that they do not breach a code of conduct.”

Veivers says she wishes she operated in a world devoid of any social media as it has heaped additional pressure on professional athletes. Social media through fan engagement has created stakeholders invested in the athlete’s performances and lifestyles that weren’t there before. Strangers and “couch experts” can openly voice their opinions directly to the athlete and all those messages have the potential to pile up and weigh on the athlete’s mind.

Trevor Noah's career at the Daily Show threatened to implode before it kicked off as a result of old tweets, some as far back as 2009.

Trevor Noah's career at the Daily Show threatened to implode before it kicked off as a result of old tweets, some as far back as 2009.

“They don’t even have to be defamatory or scathing comments to have a negative effect on the athlete’s performance,” explains Veivers. “Last week we had a few debutants for the Lions (against Collingwood in the opening round of the AFL) and they received so many well wishes from friends and family on social media. Too much support can lead to performance anxiety and can take the athlete’s focus away from the simple processes that he needs to enable optimum performance. These young men have a whole new set of expectations that they have to manage that just wouldn’t exist without social media.”

Veivers and sports psychologists around the world now have to educate their athletes about the dangers of social media. She uses scare tactics and real life examples to instil a fear in them. One example is how a professional footballer had his house broken into as a result of personal information posted on one of his social media profiles. Bullying is also a real concern. All too often fans cross the line when it comes to criticism and Veivers strongly stresses to her athletes that they have a right to set firm boundaries and disengage from social media when that criticism becomes abuse.

Unfortunately, an athlete can be swept up in a social media controversy without actually engaging online. In 2014, Didier Deschamps, the current manager of the French national football team, filed a civil law suit against Samir Nasri’s girlfriend Anara Atanes after she tweeted: “F**k France and F**k Deschamps” after the Manchester City star was omitted from France’s FIFA World Cup squad. While Deschamps remains at the helm, the young midfielder’s international career remains in doubt.

Veivers tells of an incident involving some of her players posing in a photo holding drinks from a main sponsor’s rival that was posted by a cousin of one of the players. “It can be that simple,” she says. “Athletes can lose endorsements and sponsorships or their integrity can be seriously questioned.” In 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall lost a major sponsorship deal after: “What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side…” This followed US President Barack Obama’s announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.  

The consequences of social media engagement extend further than financial implications. Like all of us, sports stars carry insecurities and self-doubts and if exacerbated by social media, they can become real problems. It is human nature to compare ourselves to other people but thanks to social media and the ease with which we can access other people's personal portfolios, skewed perceptions on what is normal or healthy abound. “I work with a footballer who is so obsessed with how he looks that he suffers from a condition called body dysmorphic disorder,” Veivers reveals. “He is an amazing athlete but as a consequence of social media he has started to doubt not only how he looks, but also how he plays. Body dysmorphic disorder is not openly discussed but is a serious issue for professional athletes and can be directly correlated to social media.”

At the very least this can become a distraction and at worst a serious mental health issue. Veivers explains that it can all culminate in poor choices related to how the athlete treats his or her body in terms of training and diet. She tells me that she has seen injuries and drops in performances directly related to body dysmorphia that stemmed from social media. 

New technology has allowed a new generation to interact with the world around them through a screen. Social media has meant that every individual can become the centre of his or her own world. Every thought that pops up, no matter how inane, can be shared with the world in seconds. Veivers has seen first-hand how a young athlete with his nose constantly in his phone can lose the respect of his teammates. Social cohesion is vital to team success and the anti-social tendencies of social media can alienate athletes and create cliques.

That is why Veivers and the Brisbane Lions confiscate all phones and tablets several hours before a match and only return them to the players several hours after the match has ended. “Our young athletes in this current generation just don’t know how to put their phones down,” says Veivers, her frustration carrying over our Skype call. “I would rather social media just didn’t exist.”

With increased stakeholders, exacerbated pressures, abusive fans getting too personal, and the understandable immaturity of young players, social media can be a hazardous minefield of controversy. One slip and the social and financial consequences could be career threatening. Social media can be a wonderful tool for a professional athlete and the engagement that it allows has opened up a relationship between sports stars and fans that is unprecedented. The flip side though is that the psychological dangers are a real threat and it is imperative that they are managed. 

Tracey Veivers has been with the Brisbane Lions as their head sport psychologist for 11 years. She helps players and coaching staff find the optimum mental space for peak performance. She has worked extensively with the AFL club as well as Brisbane Roar FC, the Wallabies (Australian rugby union national team), the Queensland Academy of Sport as well as V8 Supercars.