Some Players Cry Foul as Sports Leagues Crack Down on Social Networking

Just because you earn a few million dollars a year putting a ball through a hoop or kicking one between the uprights doesn't mean you have the right to say anything about anything. 

As professional athletes increasingly dish directly to their fans via Twitter and Facebook, league officials say some have committed personal fouls, forcing them to enforce policies designed to rein the players in.

And that, in turn, has prompted some stars to say that the people who pay their salaries have stepped out of bounds.

Matt Barnes, a starting forward for the Orlando Magic, recently became the latest NBA player to learn that league officials were closely watching his moves -- both on the hardwood and on the Internet. Barnes posted last week that he had been told by "higher powers" to tone down his language on his Twitter account.

"I understand both sides of the fence," Barnes told FoxNews.com, acknowledging the role he plays as an ambassador for the league. "At the same time, it's just like, I think it's over the top.”

Barnes said he and the NBA's other top Twitterers -- including teammate Dwight Howard, Boston's Paul Pierce and Cleveland's Shaquille O'Neal -- should be able to say what they want without being censored.

"You should be able to voice your opinions, your true feelings," the 6-foot-7 forward said. "That's obviously not the case."

Barnes, who has 3,352 followers on Twitter (compared to O'Neal's more than 2.8 million), said social networking sites link him directly to the fans who fill the NBA's arenas night after night.

"More than anything, when we interact with fans, they want to know how we're feeling," he said. "They don't want us to sugarcoat it ... It's really one of the only ways for our fans to know what we're doing, our true feelings."

Joel Glass, a spokesman for the Magic, said "informal education" has been given to players regarding Facebook and Twitter, but he was not aware of any specific discussion with Barnes regarding his posts.

But Barnes says there was a conversation, and he took the issue to his fans last week after he said he was told to tone it down.

"Wit that said I was bothered when they told me that, cause I thought u were suppose 2 b urself on twitter," Barnes posted on March 3. "Wata yall think??"

Another pro athlete, golfer John Daly, used his Twitter page last week to call sportswriter Gary Smits a "jerk" after Smits disclosed details from Daly's PGA Tour disciplinary file. Daly even posted Smits' cellphone number.

Smits told the Associated Press he had received nearly 100 calls and 30 messages by last Wednesday.

Daly, who has since removed the posts from his Twitter page, reportedly posted two other messages criticizing Smits' work, calling it "paparazzi-like gossip." PGA Tour officials did not return a message seeking comment on Daly's messages.

Last August, the National Football League became the first major sport to chime in on social networking when it announced that players, coaches and other NFL personnel would be banned from using Twitter and Facebook between 90 minutes before kickoff and and the completion of post-game interviews.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league is monitoring 335 players who have Twitter accounts. With roughly 1,700 players on a total of 32 teams, that's more than 5 percent of all active players. In comparison, only 60 Major League Baseball players are on Twitter.

"We've embraced it," McCarthy said.

NFL stars like the New Orleans Saints' Reggie Bush and the Cincinnati Bengals' Chad Ochocinco lead the pack on Twitter, with more than 1 million and 778,000 followers, respectively. Retired defensive stars like Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan have also kept themselves in the Twitter game by garnering close to 400,000 followers each.

The NBA restricts posts by athletes between 45 minutes before and after any game, compared to a 30-minute policy used by Major League Baseball. The National Hockey League does not have a social networking policy, but "recommended guidelines" are expected to be issued before next season, a spokesman told FoxNews.com.

Tweeting has also affected collegiate athletics as well. In September, Mike Leach, Texas Tech's head football coach at the time, banned his players from using Twitter in September after one of his linebackers used the site to document the coach's lateness to a team meeting. "The head coach can't even be on time," the tweet read prior to being deleted. (Leach was later fired in December two days after he was suspended by Texas Tech as it probed his treatment of a player who suffered a concussion.)

Bill Thompson, a gambling industry expert and professor of public administration at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, said the restrictions show that the leagues are concerned about players divulging information that could be useful to gamblers.

"The league won't be saying that, but the league wants to make sure the public has equal access to information and that there's no private information," Thompson told FoxNews.com. "The news media is on top of injuries, but they don't want private information out there because they think it would help certain bettors or bookies -- and they don't want to do that."

Despite those policies, fans can expect professional athletes to keep using social networking sites, sports industry experts told FoxNews.com.

"Twitter and other social media programs that connect fans and athletes directly are here to stay," Robert Tuchman, president of Premiere Corporate Events, a sports entertainment firm, wrote in an e-mail. "This is an opportunity for athletes to connect directly with their fans and without a third-party intermediary."

Aside from quick conversations before and after games, Tuchman said social networking has gotten casual fans closer than ever to their childhood heroes. Still, he said, players need to watch what they tweet.

"While it can be very beneficial for athletes to have this outlet, they still have to remember who is signing their checks at the end of the day," Tuchman said.

"This is especially true for a player like Matt Barnes, who is not a star in the league. He is someone who can be replaced very easily, and many teams will find replacements than rather deal with a difficult personality, especially when that attitude can affect fans' opinions of the team."