A Former Player's Guide to Social Media, Image Consciousness and Self-Censorship

Ryan Riddle@@Ryan_RiddleCorrespondent IOctober 3, 2012

Image courtesy of ncsasports.org
Image courtesy of ncsasports.org

In an industry saturated in carefully manipulated public image, intensely guarded and packaged for family entertainment, each player is forced to walk a tightrope between honesty and neutrality. After all, in order to keep the gravy train a-flowing, you better not upset the chef.

In this modern era of sports where every athlete is given a voice directly linked to the masses at the push of a button, empowerment and self-defamation can go hand in hand.

But the ultimate consequence for athletes dabbling in social-media roulette could be the loss of millions of dollars and the acquisition of a lot of free time, perfect for engaging in the very activity which created the empty calendar to begin with.  

For those who may not realize the gravity of this social-media phenomenon, allow me to share a recent example.

Shortly following the Monday Night Football game against the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks in which the replacement refs cost the Packers the game with one of the worst calls in recent memory, Packer offensive lineman T.J. Lang “tweeted” an obscenity targeted at the replacement refs which quickly went viral.

In a matter of hours, Lang had acquired over 90,000 new followers.

For most NFL players, sending a single sentence from the comforts of their living room could lead to an all-out media-frenzy if they aren’t careful. Football players are trained early on how to deal with the media, primarily through imitating their peers. By the time they’re a seasoned NFL veteran, they can rattle off responses to reporters as if in auto-pilot.

The typical concern is to not give the media anything newsworthy nor say anything that could cause a team distraction.

Another constant threat to freedom of speech is the common consequence of fines from either the team or the NFL. But the biggest fear is saying something that could get your ostracized from the league, or perhaps from your livelihood altogether.

For many in the NFL, this fear may not linger as something specific, but rather as a constant, abstract-hypothetical which can keep most guys heavily guarded and always on their toes.

This is the reason why the NFL fails to have a single openly gay player on a roster. Perhaps you may be able to name a few of the known atheist NFL players, but I sure can’t. What about all of the politically outspoken players out there? I know there are a few, but why is this generally so rare?

The answer is simple: It’s hard enough trying to survive the NFL with the normal obstacles in place. The last thing most people want to do is to challenge the already astronomical odds of attaining and maintaining success in the NFL by opening up their big mouth and doing something stupid like expressing themselves.

The evolution of social media has provided athletes with a platform to express, share and promote whatever they so desire. But the question remains: What is the best thing to do with so much power in the palm of your hand?

There’s no easy answer to this question, regardless of how many times we hear Herm Edwards tell players, “Don’t push send.” Why should it be advisable for our athletes to keep their mouths forever shut?

Everyone has their own unique goals in life, and for some players, the soapbox provided to an NFL athlete can procure many advantages and opportunities where there weren’t any before.

But as much as social media has the potential to be a launching pad for many careers, it can also become a destructive force in regard to on-the-field production.

Some may argue there is a strong correlation between Chad Johnson’s increased time and energy in social media over the years and his steady decrease as a productive athlete.

Personally, there are only a few NFL players I choose to follow on Twitter, mainly because the stuff most of them have to say is of no interest to me. But if I were to offer current players any bit of advice in dealing with social media, it would be this:

Say whatever it is you feel compelled to say, express your freedom and shine your light onto the world as you see fit. But please, make sure you have given considerable thought to the consequences of your words. Do not be the guy completely thrown off by the public’s reaction to your vociferations.

It is only when you are able to anticipate and handle the outcomes of your decisions that you can remove yourself from regretting them.