By: Ben Robinson

The issue of when the law should involve itself in the world of sports has always been contested, but perhaps never so much as it has of late. Over the past decade, high-profile athletes like Michael Vick and Ray Lewis have gotten into legal trouble that has had major consequences for them professionally.

This debate about when off-field actions should affect on-field actions has recently surfaced again, as five NFL players have been involved in domestic abuse incidents in the past month. When the video of Ray Rice abusing his wife surfaced on the internet at the beginning of the month, the internal quarrel of the NFL was palpable. They were caught in the dilemma of being a for-profit corporation that makes its money from having stars like Ray Rice continue to play games, but also wanting to at least appear to be concerned with moral issues for the sake of public relations. Being so torn, the league stumbled through the process, sending mixed messages by initially suspending Rice for only two games, before extending the suspension indefinitely. What eventually swayed the commissioner toward stronger disciplinary action was public opinion.

In general, major sports franchises and large corporations want to maintain good public relations. It’s not necessarily because teams like the Baltimore Ravens have particular personal convictions about being anti-violence, but when it comes down to it, maintaining a certain image of morality for these teams can be a cold and calculated economic decision. And yes, it is lamentable that organizations like the National Football League do not champion causes like anti-violence unsolicited. However, this desire of corporations to “look good” presents an interesting opportunity, as social media makes it easier than ever for the public to make their opinions about said companies known to the world instantly. Platforms like Twitter made it possible for Roger Goodell and the NFL to assess public opinion within minutes of details being released about Ray Rice assaulting his wife.

And so we learn from this whole NFL domestic abuse debacle that, if only for reasons of self-interest, what we think about giant international corporations matters to them. They long to be in good standing with the public in hopes that it will increase profits. Being perceived as a “moral organization” becomes smart business practice.  As such, this affords the general public a great deal of power in the ways that we interact with these businesses. The public has the power to ensure that morality does have some place in big business, as we essentially function as stockholders in these organizations – despite the fact they we may not actually own any shares on paper. That's why Nike dropped Rice and Wheaties dropped Adrian Peterson. Whether or not Nike has a policy that they will not support criminals is irrelevant if public opinion is so strongly against domestic abuse that they have no choice but to assent. The same goes for the NFL team in Washington and the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. In an era where a negative public image can destroy a company in less than 24 hours, the public has a great deal of power.

It has been said before that you can vote every day with your money, but in this instance we need to be sure that it’s about more than money. We now have the ability to utter a collective “shame on you” to companies that once seemed larger than life itself, and you may not realize it yet, but they’re listening.

However, the influence social media has on public opinion also has the potential for negative consequences if it goes unchecked. Because social media is oriented towards the optics of an incident – what people perceive as having happened versus what actually happened – there is a chance that what truly happened might matter less and less. I bring this up not to suggest that Ray Rice was actually innocent, but rather to suggest that in other circumstances, there is a dangerous opportunity for people to be wrongly convicted by the notoriously merciless jury that is the world wide web.  The high-speed nature of social media requires that companies act fast when scandals arise, sometimes so fast that they may be forced do so before they have all of the facts, or even worse, being forced to let someone go who you know to be wrongly accused in order to save face.

Wherever you stand on the spectrum of social media’s power to form public opinion, and consequently illicit action from corporations, it is clear that more than ever, public opinion is a force to be reckoned with.

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