Social media can provide benefits, pitfalls for athletes
By Scott Brown and Bob Cohn,
Published: Sunday, May 8, 2011
At a breakfast during the NFL owners' meeting in March, someone asked New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin about players using Twitter and other social media. He looked as though he had bitten into a rotten grapefruit.
"I don't know what the hell that is," Coughlin said. "I'm from a different era."
Coughlin is likely in the minority. Most coaches seem to be aware of the problems and pitfalls caused by the often combustible mixture of athletes and social media.
The latest brush fire broke out last week when Rashard Mendenhall's controversial Twitter posts about Osama bin Laden and 9/11 produced national headlines and considerable outrage. Roundly criticized for his fumble during the Super Bowl, the Steelers running back once again became a target of fans' antipathy. He also lost an endorsement deal with the Champion sports apparel company.
The backlash underscored the appeal and downside of social media: Athletes can bypass traditional media filters, but they are on their own, a potentially dangerous situation. There is no editing process or anyone with a cooler head to stop them from posting something they might (and often do) later regret.
"I think we're gonna look back on this period as kind of the Wild West of social media," said Syracuse professor of television and pop culture Robert Thompson.
Once a post is out there, as Mendenhall found out, it cannot be reeled back. In today's wired world, useful information and ill-advised tweets alike are a click away from reaching the world.
"It's a bad mix for you. It's a bad mix for me. It's a bad mix (for anybody) if we don't edit ourselves," Gene Grabowski, a senior vice president for Levick Strategic Communications in Washington D.C., said about Twitter.
A young or less-experienced athlete "increases the chances for misunderstanding or misspeaking," Grabowski said, although he added, "I think most of the time it's quite harmless."
Not in Mendenhall's case.
He tried to clarify his position, a difficult task in a forum that allows 140 characters per entry, and then apologized in a 500-word blog post to anyone that he had "unintentionally" offended. But he still lost his Champion endorsement deal.
"The thing about Twitter is, it comes right from the id," Thompson said. "It doesn't go through any editing process. You could be in your pajamas, you could be drunk. ... What makes this period of social media so amusing is that people have not yet learned their lessons."
Longtime Pittsburgh sports agent Ralph Cindrich has mostly a veteran clientele (including Steelers linebacker James Farrior) "who you hope by this time has enough sense to not go out and say things that are controversial."
Cindrich's recommendation to younger players: "Look to the leaders of your team. If you're a quarterback, what would Peyton Manning do• What would Tom Brady do• The bottom line is, look to the guys who are solid."
Although he has no social media accounts, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he does not discourage their use. His only rule is to not discuss team business on such forums, a common policy among the other clubs. The NFL prohibits players from tweeting on game days from 90 minutes before kickoff until the end of the postgame media interviews. Otherwise, the league does not censor content, leaving the teams to deal with controversial posts.
The other major sports leagues likewise restrict the timing of the tweets. Major League Baseball apparently also has a blanket policy on criticism. Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was suspended for two games and fined after he fired off some angry tweets from the clubhouse following his ejection from an April game. He also likely violated a provision that prohibits "disparaging" comments.
"My guess is that more and more institutions are gonna come up with more sophisticated ways to manage these things," Thompson said. "If I were the owner of a team, I would investigate with my legal department what kind of restrictions I could put on an athlete."
Many Steelers are active on Twitter or Facebook, including outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, receiver Hines Ward, strong safety Troy Polamalu and, of course, Mendenhall.
At the rookie symposiums the NFL requires drafted players to attend, media training includes the use of social media. It is part of the wide-ranging program aimed at providing players with life skills that will help ease their transition from college to the NFL.
The league also requires every team to conduct a media training session before the start of every season.
Yet several incidents have left old-school coaches such as Coughlin, and many newer-school coaches, likely shaking their heads. Chad Ochocinco was fined $25,000 for tweeting during a preseason game. Larry Johnson and Antonio Cromartie have critically tweeted on team-related matters. Last season, several NFL players ganged up on Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on Twitter for sitting out the second half of the NFC Championship Game with a knee injury.
This wasn't even Mendenhall's first brush with Twitter trouble. He was roundly criticized for endorsing Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson's comparison of the NFL's treatment of players to modern-day slavery.
Twitter might not be the forum for thoughtful discussion of complicated and sensitive subjects, especially when fueled by ignorance, anger or adult beverages. "If you're not able to drive properly, you shouldn't be tweeting," Cindrich said.
"It's good to have a filter sometimes because someone will find out about what you're writing and then someone will ask you questions about it," said Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan, who has a Twitter account.
Gaffes such as Mendenhall's obscure the benefits of social media to the athletes — who have a means to communicate without traditional media filters — and to the fans, who now have access to players in ways they never could before.
"There's a lot of people out there that follow us and want to know what we're doing and it's a good way to interact and find out what they're thinking, too," Hanrahan said. "It's pretty fun if you want to have fun with it."
"Let's not be naïve, it's, quote, a force," Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell said of social media. "I'm not on it, but I have an appreciation for it. Our owner (Jim Irsay) uses it quite a bit to get information out about our organization."Staff writer Karen Price contributed. Additional Information:
Here is a look at some sports figures who have gotten into trouble because of Twitter postings:
• Chad Ochocinco, receiver, Cincinnati Bengals
Ochocinco was fined $25,000 by the NFL in 2010 for sending tweets prior to kickoff of a preseason game against Philadelphia and then again during the game.
• Larry Johnson, running back, Kansas City Chiefs
Johnson hastened his exit from town by taking shots at new coach Todd Haley's credentials in October 2009. That month, the Chiefs also suspended Johnson for tweeting homophobic slurs at a heckler, costing him about $600,000 in wages.
• Antonio Cromartie, cornerback, San Diego Chargers
Cromartie was fined $2,500 in August 2009 for complaining about the food at training camp.
• Marlon Williams, linebacker, Texas Tech
Williams was suspended in September 2009 by coach Mike Leach after using Twitter to criticize his coach for being late to a team meeting.
? Lane Kiffin, football coach, University of Tennessee
Tennessee had to report a violation to the NCAA in May 2009 after Kiffin used his account to mention an unsigned recruit by name.
• Mark Cuban, owner, Dallas Mavericks
In March 2009, Cuban became the first person to be fined by a sports league • he lost $25,000 • for complaining about referees in a tweet.
• Denny Hamlin, driver, NASCAR
Hamlin was fined $50,000 in July 2010 for remarks following a Nationwide race that race officials deemed too critical.
• Brandon Jennings, guard, Milwaukee Bucks
Jennings was fined $7,500 by the NBA in December 2009 for tweeting about a victory in the locker room before postgame media requirements were fulfilled.
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