The Internet has made the world a smaller place in many regards, but perhaps one of the most interesting developments that mass-communication tools and social networking have made possible is the connection between athletes and other famous individuals and their fans.
Even a decade ago, athletes were nearly impossible for the average fan to connect with directly. Sending a letter or picking up a phone was ineffective, as those means of communication can be easily diverted. It was a simple matter of hiring a few employees for an athlete to simply hide from the fame if it became overwhelming.
With Twitter and other social networking sites, however, tweeting athletes are now just a few key presses and an @ tag away from any fan who wishes to follow them. There is a world of difference in how the average person communicates with their heroes.
Twitter has been adopted by the vast majority of NFL players. Some have used the service just like any other person, while others have embraced the opportunity to cultivate and communicate with a group of fans.
According to Tweeting-Athletes.com, the vast majority of NFL athletes—1,557 right now—have at least some public presence on Twitter.
These accounts, especially the active ones, tend to be popular. In some cases, big-name players have accrued over a million followers. Some of the players choose to ignore the fans who have added them as background noise, but many interact with them.
But is this newfound connection a positive development?
The growth of Twitter and other social networking sites as a tool to bring athletes and fans closer together has been a double-edged sword with many pros and cons.
Player tweets and linked pictures can give fans the chance to experience the personal lives of their favorite players. Fans can learn about who the players are and how they interact with their friends and families and in some cases even form friendships of their own.
Using Twitter in that way can help to humanize the players, bringing them down a few pegs from the pedestal that fans have placed them on. It is a great thing to go out and watch a favorite team play, and adding even the barest of personal connections to some of the men on the field amplifies that.
Twitter also allows players to connect with fans on a professional level. Instead of waiting for press releases and media interviews to gain information, players can pass along pertinent information such as how recovery from an injury is progressing or even their workout regimens. This new form of communication gives fans the feeling of being an insider, which can be a big perk.
On the other hand, tweets can also be used to make untimely or controversial updates that will be seen by the wide variety of people who follow that particular athlete.
Unlike traditional lines of communication between fans and athletes, Twitter and other social media sites where the athlete connects directly with his fans do not have the benefit of PR review or any other filter.
This leaves the door wide open for players to make statements that many of their fans will find in poor taste.
Part of the beauty of sports is that in many ways the athletes are dehumanized when they take the field. The lack of knowledge and understanding of who players actually are helps to allow fans from across socioeconomic boundaries to cheer for them without prejudice.
Removing that filter and showing the world the athlete’s true personality can change a fanbase’s perception of that player.
In a league where positive name recognition and a strong personal following can translate into sponsorships, bigger paychecks and better prestige, it is in an athlete’s best interest to put his best foot forward in all facets of his life. That includes the Internet.
Those who allow the world to see them at their worst are hurting themselves and possibly even their teams.
The damage can be done with just a thoughtless tweet or two, often without the athlete ever being cognizant that the 140 characters they have typed could have such far-reaching consequences.
It can be difficult to remember that the Internet strips context from statements by isolating single statements from a conversation and removing all of the physical and vocal cues that we use to interpret meaning.
Without context, statements that are made tongue-in-cheek or which may not have seemed offensive in real life can become a PR nightmare.
While the argument can be made that athletes are only human and have every right to express their thoughts and opinions—both valid points—athletes are held to a higher standard than the regular Twitter user simply because the public eye is so focused on them.
Their opinions matter to a much broader spectrum of people than the average Twitter user encounters.
Take, for example, the controversial tweets that came from athletes in the NFL and other professional sports when the news was broken that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.
The public backlash against those various reactions was strong enough to prompt follow-up posts from many players ranging from apologetic to defiant.
If the player wishes to express a controversial side of himself to the public, he must be prepared to deal with any fallout that occurs—up to and including fans pushing back.
In the end, there are plenty of considerations both good and bad for the use of Twitter by professional athletes as a tool to connect with fans. When placed in responsible, mature hands, Twitter can be a powerful tool to help cultivate a fanbase and forge new relationships.
In the hands of a player with strong opinions and not enough self-restraint, Twitter can be a blow to a player’s popularity for fans. In extreme cases where a player’s behavior online has had particularly far-reaching consequences, it can potentially harm his value to a team.
For better or for worse, the NFL has not yet followed the lead of some universities by banning the use of Twitter altogether.
Instead, the league has allowed players to make their own decisions regarding their online personas with the exception of restricting tweets from 90 minutes before kickoff until after the media interviews are conducted.
As long as Twitter is not affecting athletes’ on-field performances, that is an appropriate balance to strike.
With regards to athletes using Twitter at all—in the end, the pros seem to outweigh the cons. There will be NFL players every year who make the news for their off-field conduct, and Twitter is merely another outlet for that inappropriate behavior.
The vast majority of NFL players quietly include the service as part of their daily lives without making headlines, making those who abuse Twitter the exception and not the rule.