Thirty years ago, if a professional athlete wanted to convey a message to a large audience, he or she had to call a press conference. In today’s ever-increasing world of technology, social media, smartphones and hundreds of channels of TV, athletes can instantly express themselves to everyone instantaneously.
Twitter has become an extremely controversial form of communication in professional sports, and some coaches have even taken to banning their players from using it. It’s controversial, it’s intimidating, it’s downright frightening.
Countless athletes get in trouble or cause problems with what they say, and there almost seems to be a competition to see who can be the most outrageous. Chad Ochocinco has nearly 3 million Twitter followers, and they aren’t following him to hear him say that he loves his team and he’s having fun. They’re following him to hear the dirt, the gossip and the behind-the-scenes talk.
It’s almost a double-edged sword, as if the NFL wants to seem permissible with the new forms of social media, but the league is hesitant to give players full power, and it should be. The National Football League just isn’t ready for the mobile age, and I don’t know if it ever will be.
Nowadays, fans and the media don’t just know when a player is excited for a big game or upset that his team traded away a star athlete. Now, the fans and the media can know everything about the player. They know what he’s thinking, what bars he goes to, which celebrities he interacts with and more.
Twitter has become a source of trouble for some athletes due to the nature of their tweets, no player more so than Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall. This past spring, Mendenhall made national headlines for his controversial tweets regarding the death of terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Mendenhall apologized for his remarks, claiming he was simply trying to “stir up conversation,” but this proved another example of the controversy social media can cause.
Twitter has also become a source for athletes to provoke one another through what are called "Twitter wars". Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy tweeted earlier this past summer that New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora is “soft” and “overrated.”
Umenyiora naturally responded back via Twitter, and thus begun a Twitter war that involved McCoy against Umenyiora and Umenyiora’s teammate Justin Tuck.
Perhaps Tuck said it best when he told Mike and Mike in the Morning:
“I honestly think social media has made people cowards. Where I’m from, if you had a problem with somebody, you said it to their face and that was it. I think now people are hiding behind computers and smartphones to get out something.”
The frightening aspect of Twitter, from a public relations standpoint, is its lack of filter. Athletes are free to tweet anything and everything they would like, and this has been detrimental and a disservice to athletes who simply don’t possess the maturity to process a message before sending it out.
When a player is asked a question from a sports reporter in the locker room after a game, he or she typically knows what an acceptable answer is, according to the standards of the team protocol. The problem with Twitter is that too many athletes don’t think before they tweet, and this can cause quite a lot of trouble.
Homero Gil de Zuniga, assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Journalism, says:
“The misuse of Twitter is due to a lack of understanding of the power of social media…That's hard to understand when it's you and a keyboard. There's a sense of intimacy and to some degree anonymity. It doesn't feel like you're talking to 2 million people.”
Erik Qualman, author of Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business, suggested all athletes attend a Twitter training camp; while the article was being facetious about the literal aspect of a training camp, some NFL teams have actually taken to hiring social media consultants to work with athletes.
In doing this, it can be hoped that what the athletes are saying will not come back to haunt either the athletes or the organization. It is particularly a hassle for head coaches who not only have to worry about the strenuous demands of coaching a team in an extremely competitive environment, but also what some of their players are tweeting about.
ESPN’s Skip Bayless says all athletes should be banned from using Twitter because they aren’t experienced enough to handle the “dangers of Twitter.”
This leaves today’s sports world in an environment in which social media communication is thriving. I don’t feel athletes should use Twitter for the simple reason that the negatives outweigh the positives. Too many professional or collegiate athletes have made controversial comments on Twitter.
I think all coaches would be smart to ban their players from using it, and I actually believe professional sports leagues would run more efficiently if athletes were not using Twitter.
That doesn’t mean Twitter will go away. Or Facebook. Or smartphones. Twenty years from now, who knows what it will be like? Maybe we as fans will have access right inside athletes’ brains, so we’ll know every thought they think before they even think it.
I think the smartest thing for the NFL to do is not to run from the mobile age, but simply embrace it with open arms because it’s not going anywhere.