This month’s question was inspired by comments from Manchester City boss, Pep Guardiola, about his first choice left back, Benjamin Mendy. During a press conference over the summer, Guardiola suggested that Mendy should, “forget a little bit the social media and improve a few things”. Mendy, who has a huge following on both Instagram and Twitter, vowed to “listen to the manager”...though he remains incredibly active online.
Allegedly, Guardiola has gone one step further by banning the use of mobile phones at Machester City's training ground altogether. But is this kind of ban lawful? Well, like most employment contracts, the standard form Premier League contract includes a clause requiring players “to comply with and act in accordance with all lawful instructions of any authorised official of the Club”. There is no reason this could not extend to a blanket social media ban – at least during working hours.
Many professional clubs and organisations have social media policies in place to govern what their employees should (and, more importantly, shouldn’t) be commenting about online. In mainstream employment, improper social media use in and outside of work can lead to disciplinary action. In certain circumstances, this can lead to dismissal. However, it takes a lot for football clubs to take similar action against their players because of the wider footballing and commercial considerations at play.
In 2016, Andre Gray - now a striker at Watford - came under fire when homophobic tweets he had posted several years earlier resurfaced on Twitter. The player made a public apology and his club at the time, Burnley, decided to take no further action. However, the FA later stepped in to give the player a four-game suspension for misconduct.
As many young footballers effectively grow up in the public eye, mistakes they make on social media can spread like wildfire. The Premier League is live to this issue. Rules 201 to 204 of the Premier League Handbook require all clubs with academies to appoint a member of academy staff to train or coach academy players in “Lifestyle Management Skills”, which includes the “use of social media.” In this sense, prevention is better than cure.
However banning the use of social media altogether could also have a detrimental impact. Clubs can draw significant commercial benefit from the enhanced traffic and profile that their players’ social media activities bring. Even if the player is only promoting his or her own profile, many clubs now buy-out players’ individual image rights as part of their deal with the player – at least for use in a club context. This means that the club can feel the direct financial benefit from a player’s high social media profile. As such, completely silencing a player with a strong social presence could negatively impact commercial opportunities for the club. That said, clubs will always prioritise performance on the pitch, which goes some way to explaining Guardiola’s position.
Will limiting social media use always help performance though? Many players love the limelight, so could taking away a player’s online audience actually have a detrimental effect on performance? As always, it’s a case of balance: treating players as individuals and understanding what makes them tick, whilst ensuring one individual doesn’t disrupt the team. Blanket social media bans are unlikely to be the right solution though.