If you were scrolling Hockey Twitter last week – sorry, Hockey X, I guess? – you might have stumbled upon a tweet from the Sportsnet account which sampled a clip from that night’s Penguins-Sabres broadcast of Kris Letang and Peyton Krebs, who had just been pulled apart and sent to the penalty box, yammering at each other in a comical split-screen. The tweet, which riffed on a classic meme of two dudes screaming about whether Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz is actually a princess, pulled in about 650,000 views.
A few days later, the TSN account dropped a clip of Mitch Marner on the Leafs bench, sporting a full face shield because he’d taken a puck to the jaw in a previous game, struggling awkwardly to extract his mouth guard through a narrow hole as the play-by-play guys gently mocked his efforts. A crying-laughing emoji pasted above the clip made it clear what the admin thought of the moment.
All of which is to say that the hockey conversation on X is often more entertaining than the games themselves. As it is with most pro sports, which for more than a decade have filled the platform with breaking news and real-time video content, transforming it into both an ideal second-screen complement for hard-core viewers and, increasingly, a first-screen option for the growing legions of fans who no longer watch whole games.
But over the past year, leagues, teams, sponsors and even the fans who wish outspoken athletes would just shut up and play, have found it harder to ignore X’s growing toxicity.
After this week, it might be wise for pro sports to call a timeout on the platform, and maybe even cut ties entirely.
On Wednesday, Elon Musk torched what little brand value remains of the service he bought only 13 months ago when, in a fit of titanic petulance, he scolded advertisers who have grown concerned over his progressively more erratic behaviour, telling them he didn’t actually want their money and they should, er, go away.
As you may have heard, he used stronger language than that.
Appearing at The New York Times DealBook Summit, Musk was asked by journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin about the fallout from some of his tweets endorsing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Brands including Apple – which reportedly spent US$100-million on Twitter ads last year, when it was still called Twitter – and IBM announced they were pausing their activity on the platform. The European Union said it, too, would temporarily halt its ads because of an explosion of misinformation on the platform about the Israel-Hamas war.
“Don’t advertise,” Musk hissed, suggesting he was being blackmailed. The “advertising boycott,” he declared, would “kill the company,” adding with Nixonian paranoia that “everybody on Earth” would understand who was responsible because “we’ll document it in great detail.”
Musk fancies himself a free-speech absolutist – when he bought X, he said he was doing so to save it as a “global town square” – but he doesn’t seem to understand that commercial boycotts are a form of speech, protected in the United States by the First Amendment.
And by warning that the marketers must pay him or risk censure, he sounds as though he’s threatening blackmail himself.
But the so-called boycott, which is really just marketers being cautious, is only the latest laboratory fire in a real-time experiment being conducted by Musk to see how much he can strip from the service before it finally collapses into itself. Within weeks of buying the company, he sent thousands of employees packing, including almost the entire trust and safety department, which brands had depended on to ensure their ads didn’t appear next to hateful content.
To be fair, Twitter had never been perfect. Last fall, a few days before Musk took the reins, Twitter Canada held a panel discussion where a former social-media manager for the NHL noted that tweets from the league’s account in support of LGBTQ+ causes invariably invited noxious responses.
But at least the company was trying. Now, the place is a cesspool, in no small part because Musk instituted a policy to pay users who generate a lot of engagement, which is to say users who post stuff that makes people angry.
Last week, Musk sued Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog, which found that X had served ads for Apple, IBM, Bravo, Oracle, and Xfinity next to pro-Nazi content. Musk says the organization gamed the system, forcing it to serve those ads next to the hateful material.
But whether you’re Apple or the NFL, which The New York Times says is still advertising on X, does it really make much of a difference? The platform is filled with hate and misinformation. That’s not in dispute. Does it matter if the highlight reel you’ve posted is one tweet or 20 away from neo-Nazi material?
Morality clauses are standard in any pro sports contract. Athletes and executives are let go all the time for inappropriate conduct. With sports leagues, teams, sponsors, and broadcasters trying to position themselves in support of social causes, it’s hard to understand why any of them would want to continue engaging with Musk’s capriciousness and his broken platform. If he worked for any of those companies, his volatile behaviour – and the destruction he’s unleashed on a service that used to be a good and fun place for sports fans to come together for a few thrills and laughs – would have got him fired long ago. Time to cut him and his broken plaything loose.