By Dr Antonis Alexopoulos, Ph.D. in Sport Sociology
The relationship between Sports and Media is long-lasting, and symbiotic with mutual benefits on both sides. Arguably, the vast development and exposure of sports has been due to the role of traditional media, that serve as a vehicle to deliver sports ‘products’ to the consumer. In return sports, with the great social power of attracting the interest of consumers, have created revenue streams for the media outlets in the form of advertisements and media rights fees. In this traditional relationship, sports essentially create content for the media, which in return provide a platform for the promotion of sports and athletes’ performances as well as promoting the personal brand of athletes.
The emergence of social media has changed this traditional relationship. Sport organizations, leagues, championships, teams and of course athletes, do not depend solely on sport media nowadays. Social media have provided the possibility for them to control their own narratives and brand image.
Social media are not tools which are used separately when needed; social media nowadays are intertwined with social, cultural and individual life. Having said that, we have yet to understand the impact on societies, sports and athletes themselves. Most of the research that concerns the athletes’ use of social media centers on its marketing advantage. In addition, most of the advice given, is on the use of social media as a marketing and personal brand – building and promotional tool (and consequently its use and misuse) and its impact on the individual athlete’s personal branding. There is limited research on the relationship between social media and athletic performance and even less research on the social impact of use and misuse of social media.
Traditional media and social media have been used by athletes, to pass on messages or use their visibility and sports as a vehicle for social change. For example, Tommie Smith and John Carlos used the 1968 Summer Olympics and their Gold and Bronze medals in the 200-meter sprint race and the podium position to fight for equality. Both men wore black gloves, the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on their clothing, and held their arms up in support of “Human Rights” when receiving their medals. This was a televised event that received significant attention following the games as it was featured and still is shown in newspapers, radio, TV, and magazines across the world. These men were fighting for equality in a very divided America. Since they were two African American men who were influencers at the time based on their popularity and opportunity of the Olympic games, they used this fame to send a message to a larger audience.
Sociologically speaking, this was an act of Resistance; a conflict of sport participants with norms and values and the revelation of such conflicts that paves the way for change. In our times many athletes use social media to instigate change. Athletes like NFL star Colin Kaepernick and boxer Tyson Fury have used social media to speak about racism and depression’s stigma respectively. The other two patterns in the way sport relates to society and culture are Reflection and Reinforcement. In both these instances sport is an instrument of status quo; it helps things stay as they are, or it can even cause further division. Both these patterns are more associated with the misuse of social media by athletes. Athletes through their own self-management of narratives can express messages that can make their followers feel justified for believing certain ideas. Topics like racism, homophobia, promotion of gender-based violence, sexism are among the topics observed in the recent years in athletes’ social media. To understand the social impact, the followers’ reactions need to be analyzed. The most striking example is the case of Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou and her posts mocking African immigrants and expressing support for a far-right party went against the Olympic spirit, according to the Hellenic Olympic Committee, which led to her being expelled from the 2012 London Olympics. What followed was a barrage of tweets and Facebook posts by fans and followers morally justifying her action, adding more racist comments; reinforcing and reflecting these perverse beliefs. As expected, others disagreed with both the athletes and her supporters, which led to several days of comments and posts causing a polarizing situation that didn’t help in any way the issue of bigotry, prejudice and xenophobia in Greece.
Along with the recommendations regarding the use of social media and personal branding, athletes need to be aware of the significant role they have due to their exposure and the fact that for many people, they are role-models. This needs to be taken into consideration whenever they choose to post messages on their social media, as this can have a direct and rapid effect in the society.
Antonis Alexopoulos is a PhD holder in Sport Sociology and a PGDip in Sport Management. He currently teaches at the European University Cyprus’ and Frederick University’s Sport Science and Physical Education Programs. He is also the President of the Cyprus Physical Education and Sport Sciences Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .