The FEI’s recently released 2023 draft revisions tackled many of the usual suspects: noseband tightness, board matters, biosecurity, and more. But it also readdressed the Federation’s 2020 social media policy, with specific new appendices for athletes and officials.

As with the other revisions, the policy will be reviewed for seven weeks before final drafts are presented in October, with voting taking place in November. The new appendices somewhat soften the FEI’s previous stance on free speech and social media, though far from completely.

Official social media policies have been on the books for most sporting organizations for more than a decade, with many athletes, owners, and officials receiving fines—or worse—for perceived infractions. But changing attitudes in many governing bodies, and the successes some have seen in recent years by embracing social media, make these changes a potentially teachable moment for horse sport.

Social media & the wider sporting world

For as long as there has been social media, pro-athletes have been finding themselves on the wrong side of it—for largely preventable (read: common sense) offenses.

Back in 2009, for instance, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps lost his Kellogg’s sponsorship and was suspended by USA Swimming when he posted a picture of himself taking a bong hit. In 2012, the NBA fined Knicks player Amar’e Stoudemire $50,000 for an anti-gay tweet. And, in 2020, Dallas Mavericks owner and billionaire Shark Tank personality Mark Cuban was fined $500,000 by the NBA for several tweets in which he criticized the refereeing of a game against the Atlanta Hawks. Lest you think that’s a little drastic, this was far from a first-time breach for Cuban, who has been fined more than $3 million by the NBA for various offenses, including social media comments, since 2000.

At least as far as these infractions are concerned, the “bad behavior” exhibited is relatively cut-and-dry. You can’t be a pro-athlete and use (then) prohibited substances, homophobia/racist slurs, or rally against a ref for doing his job. The punitive side of the social media coin, however, is only one part of the equation for major organizations such as the NBA and NFL.

In recent years, these franchises have become more concerned with controlling how their brand content is disseminated (for instance, livestreaming by athletes on their personal feeds inside a stadium) or the use of social media by players within a certain designated window surrounding games.

For many organizations, time in the locker room and on the field/court is considered “team time,” in the same way that a business person reporting to work is expected to be doing his or her job, not debating quantum theory on Twitter; or a student in class is supposed to be learning, not Snapchatting a girlfriend.

Interestingly, the FEI’s latest draft revisions specifically recommended not banning cell phones for their athletes while mounted, meaning that a rider could conceivably be posting to Facebook or scrolling Reels moments before walking into the ring for a five-star round. (Research is still pending on how ‘TikTok brain’ impacts one’s ability to remember a jump-off course.)

On the other hand, some franchises, such as the PGA and MLB, have taken a decidedly more positive approach to social media with their players, both in the tone of their policies and how they support their content creation. For instance, the MLB’s social media policy, released in 2012 during the Collective Bargaining Agreement, said the following:  

“MLB recognizes the importance of social media as an important way for players to communicate directly with fans. We encourage you to connect with fans through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Along with MLB’s extensive social media activities, we hope that your efforts on social media will help bring fans closer to the game and have them engaged with baseball, your club and you in a meaningful way.”

For their part, the PGA’s about-face on social media began around 2016 and became a major boon for the organization, helping the franchise to reach younger audiences where they are. In just three years, in fact, their strategy of providing content for athletes and encouraging them to develop their own voices on social actually doubled the PGA’s follower count to 56 million. Social video views of player content jumped to the 200 million-range, providing the PGA with higher engagement rates than the MLB, NFL, and NBA.

“Our players understand their social media pages are basically their own little media companies that they have complete control over,” PGA director of player content Preston McClellan told Hashtag Sports. “If they invest a little bit of time into that, they’ll see real rewards in terms of follower growth, sponsor growth, and things of that nature.” 

That’s not to see that these organizations aren’t, to some extent, still exercising control with their social media policy. But a more modern and user-friendly tone, with less focus on the negative, seems to govern their stance on social, at least on the books.

Equestrian athletes & social media

When compared to other governing bodies and franchises, the real question regarding the FEI’s new social media policy is whether it still goes too far, or not far enough.

For one thing, the proposed policy for athletes and officials addresses only the etiquette side of social media best-practices, not things like social media-free competition windows or live streaming at events. The governing body’s original FEI Social Media Guidelines, released in 2020, applied to all FEI representatives, including officials, and took a very protective (some might say draconian) stance on the medium, especially when it came to how their representatives could speak about the FEI, itself. Some of their language states the following:

“In our private spheres, freedom of speech is one of our fundamental rights; however, when using social media, there is a thin line between public and private, as there is between personal and professional. Nothing is truly private on social media and as soon as you have posted content, you no longer control it…

“Remember, you are an ambassador of the FEI, therefore avoid social media communications that could be misconstrued and potentially damage the reputation of the FEI and the sport. Do not post disparaging or defamatory statements about the FEI, Athletes, Owners, Trainers, Grooms, Organisers, other Officials and stakeholders.”

The 2023 draft revisions for athletes seem to have slightly softened that approach, though there is still-ambiguous language regarding how athletes can speak about the Federation. In addition to warning riders to use good judgement on social, the policy states:

“[Athletes] should not make derogatory, offensive, or inflammatory comments about other Athletes, Chefs d’Equipes, coaches, teams FEI Officials, Organisers, the FEI or any individuals associated with equestrian sport. Engaging in online disputes or public arguments or targeting a particular individual for specific criticism/comment is strongly discouraged.”

This seems to cast a wide net, to say the least, and may not fully recognize the changing role that social media plays as a tool for public discourse, fan engagement, and—oh yeah—fun.

It goes without saying that you shouldn’t be able to disparage fans or officials that rule against you, or attack anyone based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. But what about a little friendly ribbing among countries, or between longtime rival athletes (think: Great Britain’s Ben Maher and Scott Brash) before a big championship?

Giving athletes a microphone to express their personalities or create hype around their sport (see: the feeds of Twitter MVPs LeBron James @KingJames or Phil Mickelson @PhilMickelson) can only work in the FEI’s favor, by expanding equestrian’s reach with potential new fans, owners, and sponsorships. And, if the PGA is any indication, it might also help to cast off some of that stiff-pinky stodginess that has always plagued the sport when it comes to its ability to resonate with new audiences. Heck, even the British royal family have learned how to let their hair down a little on Instagram.

When tapped for comment, the FEI did acknowledge social media’s changing role in the public landscape, making the following statement to Horse Network:

“The proposed policy has the aim of making sure the FEI rules and regulations are fit for purpose considering the significant changes in the area of communication since the rapid growth in the use of social media platforms as a means of communication over recent years.

“The FEI truly values the input of FEI Athletes and Officials and they are represented and consulted at all levels of the FEI…. [We] also work closely with Athletes to provide them with content for use and promotion on their own social media channels.

“The proposed social media policies aim to ensure that social media platforms are not used in a way that could cause offence or harm to others. While social media can be a very powerful and effective way of communicating it is widely acknowledged that it also has the potential to be used in a negative way…. The FEI is committed to ensuring that no one in the equestrian community is subjected to any form of harassment or abuse, including in an online setting.”

The FEI went on to relate that the new policies would be overseen by FEI headquarters, and that breaches of the social media policy would be decided on a case-by-case basis; fairly standard stuff.

But a concern felt by myself and some in the industry—including well-known owner/social media personage Erica Hatfield of the decidedly un-stodgy Eye Candy Jumpers page—is how the new rules could potentially be used for punitive purposes against anyone within the FEI’s jurisdiction. Especially when it comes to something like innocuous comments that the FEI could consider to be in poor taste, or worse, a substantive disagreement with the Federation.

Take, for example, the very-public 2016 controversy between the FEI and the International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) during the FEI and Olympic Committee’s proposed rule change from four-rider teams down to three-rider teams with no drop score.

During this period, many top riders, including Steve Guerdat (SUI), Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (GER), Cian O’Connor (IRE), and others, were vocal at IRJC General Assembly meetings and to the media about their strong objection to the rule change.  At the time, the FEI’s lack of “democracy” and “transparency” became a primary issue, with O’Connor telling the Federation, “It can’t be called a healthy debate if you don’t talk to all stakeholders.”

Three years later, at the IJRC General Assembly in Rotterdam, Guerdat went a step further.

“If we have journalists here today, I want them to know that the FEI is going to be the only one responsible for the mess we are going to see in Tokyo. Because you [the FEI] did not listen to what we were saying.” 

As it was, those were fighting words, spoken aloud in a public forum. But what if Guerdat had instead published his feelings on his personal Instagram?

At the time, it was still fairly early in the social media game for those riders involved to have maximized its power as a tool to sway public opinion, at least in the equestrian community. But what if they had?

Guerdat currently boasts 161K followers on Instagram; O’Connor and Michaels-Beerbaum have 85.4K and 86.9K, respectively. That’s a significant audience to reach with an important opinion regarding the future of your sport, should you choose to do so. Could the FEI have considered Guerdat’s laying blame at their door to be “…derogatory, offensive, or inflammatory comments?” That’s less clear.

It’s certainly a question worth asking, and it may wholly depend on who in the organization is calling the shots.

The bottom line is, social media isn’t static, and developing a hard and fast policy toward athletes’ social media policies is a little like trying to catch lightening in a bottle. Yes, there are plenty of reasons to create boundaries that foster healthy public discourse online. But it’s equally important that those boundaries don’t cross the line into limiting free speech,  individual expression, or worse, blatant censorship.

Social media can be used for harm, no question. But it can also be an important driver for societal change, brand growth, and education. The more our governing bodies can positively embrace the opportunities presented by these mediums, the more agilely we will be able to meet the challenges of our changing sports landscape. And maybe, just maybe, reach a few new fans in the process.