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NFL players learning pitfalls of using social media

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin watches the backs on backers drill during practice, Monday, July 29, 2013 at St Vincent College.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin watches the backs on backers drill during practice, Monday, July 29, 2013 at St Vincent College.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor looks in a one-handed catch during practice Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, at St. Vincent in Latrobe.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor looks in a one-handed catch during practice Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, at St. Vincent in Latrobe.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Steelers running back Baron Batch speaks to the media as he arrives to camp, Friday, July 26, 2013 at St Vincent College.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers running back Baron Batch speaks to the media as he arrives to camp, Friday, July 26, 2013 at St Vincent College.

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By Alan Robinson
Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 10:56 p.m.
 

Steelers running back Baron Batch learned that being prominent on social media can result in anti-social behavior.

While throwing vegetables into his supermarket cart, Batch was greeted by a man with a gripe.

“Why did you block me on Twitter?” the man said, and not in an entirely joking manner.

“You just answered your own question,” said Batch, who was a bit taken aback that someone would confront him in such a way.

Maybe he shouldn't have been.

NFL players, and those in the other major pro sports, are learning that the impersonal fans of old are morphing into the we-take-it-personal fans of today when it comes to Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media.

Twitter allows each player to hold his own national forum each day, without reporters or microphones, creating a bond that never existed before between athlete and fan, participant and spectator.

No doubt many of Maurkice Pouncey's 135,000 followers on Twitter feel a special kinship to the three-time Pro Bowl center because he often tweets a dozen times or more per day, creating the impression of a one-on-one relationship. Pouncey also gives away prizes at random. And some of Ike Taylor's 119,000 followers likely were drawn to him because of the inspirational messages he relays each day.

“You can find anyone in the world without even knowing them by just tweeting and talking to them,” Taylor said. “You can locate, get in contact and have a relationship with someone, not even knowing them except for social media.

“Twitter is powerful, man. You just got to be careful.”

Victor Cruz of the Giants and Roddy White of the Falcons learned just that after posting inflammatory messages following the George Zimmerman trial verdict. Their remarks were so incendiary, they likely caused every NFL general manager to secretly wish they could permanently ban their players from Twitter. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis did so last season, saying his players weren't “mature” enough to be trusted to deliver an unedited message to the masses at any moment they chose.

In a country in which there's more than one cell phone for every citizen, it's nearly impossible for an athlete to be anonymous. There's always a smartphone ready to tweet a discouraging message or capture an image as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin learned recently when he ducked into an establishment for a cold beverage. Saints quarterback Drew Brees recently was forced to deny comments he was a poor restaurant tipper.

Never before have 140 characters packed such power.

The Eagles, for example, review the Twitter and Facebook pages of all prospective draft picks, if only to gauge a player's personality and detect possible trouble.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert discourages but doesn't ban players from tweeting — more than 70 Steelers players do — but asks them to be professional and courteous. Tomlin unexpectedly jumped on the Twitter bandwagon last month, saying he wanted to give his players a social media role model.

Charley Casserly, a former general manager of the Redskins and Texans, would dislike his players being equipped with such a potentially troublesome tool.

Still, with more than 1,000 NFL players on Twitter, it's becoming more difficult for teams to put the social media genie back into the bottle.

“When I've given talks to teams about how to handle the media, I tell them social media is like having a national press conference: Everyone has access to it,” said Casserly, an NFL Network analyst. “When you go for a national press conference, you're composed, you've thought out what you're going to say, you're in a reserved mood and careful. On Twitter, some things will come out that shouldn't be out there. And there's a level of mental toughness that you have to have to be on Twitter because anybody can access you, anybody can say anything to you. How does that affect you?”

Batch, who was more active on Twitter last winter but has since backed off, spars at times with followers. Taylor has a different method for those who would be negative or disruptive.

“Mutombo!” Taylor said, mimicking a shot-blocking Dikembe Mutombo. On Twitter or Facebook, blocking an individual prevents them from accessing that account.

Steelers offensive lineman John Malecki, who performs a different form of blocking each day, is a Twitter devotee. He was a Steelers fan growing up in Pittsburgh, and he understands the thrill fans feel when an athlete interacts with them, even if it's by retweeting a message.

“They just want to be able to talk to the guys, and it's cool to see that people in a privileged position are real people,” Malecki said. “You see Maurkice with a hundred and some thousand followers, and he still interacts with them and responds to questions. Being one of the fans, too, it's awesome to be able to talk to the people you see on TV and look at it as kind of a famous person.”

Some players stick to the basics, with benign comments and go-team messages. Others are apt to discuss anything that's on their mind. Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson, for example, chastised God after dropping a potential game-winning touchdown pass against the Steelers in 2010, tweeting, “I praise you 24/7!!! And this is how you do me!!! You expect me to learn from this??? How??? I'll never forget this!! Ever!! Tnx Tho.”

That's why some teams tell their players to remember that the first four letters in Twitter are twit — and not to be one when they post a message that can be read by a potential audience of 500 million.

“You can't take it back once it's done,” Casserly said.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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