When the International Swimming League announced last week that they were taking on an ambitious 24-meet schedule spanning three continents and six months, it was met with the usual reaction to anything the ISL does these days: verbal eye-rolling from across swimming, snarky comments about payments, and a general exacerbation about the league’s ability to execute.
There were darker reactions from within the league that caused more specific concern: while some coaches and general managers (including Jason Lezak, who came on the SwimSwam podcast last week), seemed to be well-informed about the upcoming season, others were less so. Some have told SwimSwam that they generally knew the plan, but were caught off-guard by the announcement, while one general manager said that they weren’t informed of the expansion, and so was surprised by the announcement.
I have been one of the most vocal critics of the ISL’s organizational abilities. While acknowledging that the meets are a substantial upgrade in format from what we’re used to in swimming, I’ve lamented that the ISL’s inability to act as a professional sports league has damaged its reputation with the fan base and limited its expansion to a larger base.
A lot of the issues are inside-baseball without wide appeal. But there is one major lingering issue for the league that can sum up its struggles succinctly: the Twitter account of the New York Breakers.
Twitter has not been a major platform for the league. Their efforts have focused mostly on Facebook and Instagram. The league’s Twitter account has been inconsistent – it was silent during the 2021 season, though after their announcement last week it has become more active.
The league’s TikTok account hasn’t posted a video since October 2019.
Most of the league’s teams have Twitter accounts, which have varying levels of engagement and activity. The 2020 champion Cali Condors are the most active and have continued as such even into the offseason, while the London Roar have the most followers at 5,521.
The account that has most recently caught attention for its activity, though, is that of the New York Breakers: perhaps the league’s most beleaguered team that finished last in the regular season in 2019 and 2021 and 8th out of 10 teams in 2020.
The Breakers have become active in Tweeting and Retweeting anti-COVID-19-vaccine rhetoric, including a recent focus on the truckers rally in Canada protesting vaccine mandates.
The account Tweeted a handful of times during the ISL season, mostly links to streaming of matches, but in January took to Tweeting and Retweeting controversial topics from figures like Dr. Robert Malone, who are opposed to COVID-19 vaccines, as well as vaccine misinformation. One Tweet claimed that “everyone who died with COVID should be considered murdered” with a woman claiming that COVID-19 vaccines cause cancer. It includes Tweets from Pierre Kory, a doctor who testified in front of Congress that ivermectin would prevent sickness from COVID-19. He continued to spread that theory, even encouraging a twice-a-week regimen, after contracting a case of COVID-19 in spite of a weekly dose of the anti-parasitic medication.
The account shares Tweets claiming that masks don’t work, all while selling New York Breakers’ face masks in the official team store.
Other Tweets spreading disinformation have been removed by Twitter.
The account’s latest Tweet compares the Canadian government’s vaccine mandates to the Nazis: the regime that put to death of 6 million Jewish people, among others, in the 1940s, which was a major conflict point of World War II.
I’m not going to dive into the facts about what the account is Tweeting or not Tweeting, because there are plenty of news organizations doing that, and it distracts from the point:
The ISL is aware of these Tweets, which I know because I told them about the Tweets, and haven’t done anything about them. The account is currently managed by Tina Andrew according to a Tweet, who doesn’t have a personal account. The Tweets mimic Andrew’s posts on other social media accounts.
“We do live in a free country,” the Tweet identifying Andrew as the manager said. “I’m not spreading mis-information. Happy to defend every single repost I made you disagree with. And if you don’t like it, you know what to do. Would be sad to see you go! We stand for FREEDOM!”
Andrew used the word “we,” implying that she still speaks for the team.
The account is still listed as the “New York Breakers Official Account” in its bio, in spite of the fact that Andrew resigned as the team’s general manager last year.
And the ISL has either chosen not to, or been unable to, regain control of the account.
No genuine professional sports league in the world would allow a team to go this far off the rails without being reigned in. While intervention in political topics have become more common in pro sports throughout the pandemic and the social justice protests of 2020 and 2021, the messages are carefully-crafted, with input from athletes and other stakeholders.
Without any apparent input from anybody, though, Andrew has turned the team’s Twitter account into her personal sounding board about COVID-19 vaccines, while maintaining the league’s branding and identity on the account.
While pro sports teams usually have some autonomy about what they post, there are guard rails. And remember: while ISL teams are beginning to generate some revenue, the vast majority of league expenses are still funded by Konstantin Grigorishin, the league’s founder, out of his personal coffers.
The Breakers are already fighting an uphill battle competitively. While some athletes will agree with the Tweets, others will be deterred by them, making recruitment a minefield.
To be clear: the league has not made any vaccine mandate, and have not really said anything publicly about vaccines. So the Tweets are not some relevant protest against league policies.
But the league’s seeming indifference is an apt representation of the general laissez-faire response to things that they should care about, reminiscent of a league spokesperson telling SwimSwam the morning of the first day of the 2021 season that they could not provide a list of where the league was being televised.
The league has a lot of things going for it. A good format, deep pockets and long runways, participation of the world’s biggest swimming star Caeleb Dressel, a team atmosphere that athletes love, and a handful of very-engaged general managers.
I want the league to succeed. I sometimes feel as though my criticisms are too hard, but then I am reminded of the league’s failings to react to even the most basic and fundamental improvements that could be made.
Bu until the league takes itself seriously, and earnestly absorbs its duties as a ‘professional sporting endeavor,’ it is going to be really hard for the rest of us to take it seriously, too.