In sports, as in any venture in life, it's the role of the media to serve as a middleman on the information superhighway. The players play the games, the fans follow the stories, and the reporters in the middle bridge the gap between the two, spreading the word to the masses.
At least that's how it's always been. There are always ways to cut out the middleman.
Consider the recent epidemic of Twitter use among professional athletes, which has become the latest trendy way for athletes to speak directly to their fans without a soul in between.
Curt Schilling's Twitter page has almost 14,000 followers. Chad Ochocinco's page has over 150,000. Shaquille O'Neal's? Forget about it. Two million and counting. How many sportswriters out there have that many readers these days?
But apparently, too much free speech can be a bad thing. So says NBA commissioner David Stern.
The league office announced recently that restrictions on Twitter and other forms of social media will soon be enacted to curb the excessive social networking activity of the league's players and coaches.
Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports, an alum of The Boston Globe's Celtics beat, broke the story last week. In response to the NFL's decision to ban Twitter and Facebook use 90 minutes before games, the NBA is now enacting its own restrictions. The league has declined any specific comment until the new rules become official, but you can only imagine they'll be harsh.
The league has good reason. Heat youngster Michael Beasley recently posted a "twitpic" of himself that included a couple of suspicious-looking plastic bags in the background. The situation of free agent Stephon Marbury was more than just suspicious — he actually admitted over the Internet to smoking marijuana. Kevin Love, the young star forward from the Minnesota Timberwolves, broke the story of coach Kevin McHale's firing via tweet. The Wolves' front office probably wasn't too happy.
We live in a country where free speech is valued more than anything. It's in the first amendment to our Constitution. But this is far from a constitutional issue — the NBA has realized that, as a large corporate enterprise, it has an obligation to keep its employees under control.
Given the events of the past few months, something desperately needs to be done.
The media definitely still has a role to play in covering the game of basketball. Players' personal lives — whether they're marred with domestic problems, drug problems, money problems, you name it — shouldn't be exposed without careful discretion. Personnel decisions should be reported on by responsible journalists with good ethical judgment.
Simply put, the players can't go it alone. The middleman is an absolute necessity.
When David Stern unveils the NBA's new policy on social networking, it will be a strong step forward for a league that's working hard to control its image problem. Basketball is a beautiful game, but its seedy underbelly has been far too easily exposed. It's not too late to turn that around.
Players should still have the right to speak freely about their lives — in most situations, at least. NBA players are simply human beings that enjoy communicating with their friends, and there's nothing wrong with that. But there need to be limits.
Ninety-nine percent of pro athletes' tweets are perfectly harmless. If Dwight Howard wants to tell his buddies how his vacation's going, then by all means, the league should let him. But when the players go too far, a line needs to be drawn.
Let the players have their Twitter, and let them use it around the clock. But when the subject matter steers afoul, proceed with caution.
A lot of serious issues arise in pro basketball, both on and off the court. Those should be reported fairly and accurately. Let's leave that to the pros.