Pittsburgh athletes trying to find ways to avoid social media messes | TribLIVE.com
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Jonathan Bombulie

On many summer nights, 25 ticking time bombs can be located on the ground floor of PNC Park.

In the fall, 53 incendiary devices can be found Sundays at Heinz Field.

In the winter, there often are 23 potential explosives on the premises at PPG Paints Arena.

In the era of social media, every professional athlete’s phone has the potential to cause a worldwide firestorm with a few swipes of a finger.

The Pittsburgh Steelers found out as much during a tumultuous 2018 season. Other teams have learned the same. The social media platforms that have brought fans closer to athletes than ever also have created more than their fair share of problems for teams and their players.

Before delving into what organizations are doing to avoid social media missteps, it’s important to examine why athletes are drawn to this particular form of communication in the first place.

The first reason is chemistry.

According to multiple scientific studies, every time a person receives a “like” or positive comment on social media, it triggers a release of a chemical called dopamine in the reward pathways of the brain. It is the same neurotransmitter associated with the response to things like food, exercise, sex and drugs.

To say athletes are addicted to social media is not an exaggeration.

“I don’t think it’s quite the same,” said Pirates pitcher Steven Brault, who has more than 20,000 followers on his lighthearted Twitter and Instagram pages, “but it is cool. It’s nice to know people care.”

Second, it’s a matter of money.

In marketing circles, it is estimated companies looking to hire social media influencers will pay roughly $100 for every 10,000 followers a celebrity has.

It goes beyond endorsements, though. Take former Penguins winger Paul Bissonnette, for example. On the ice, he scored seven goals in an unremarkable, 202-game NHL career. Off the ice, showing off his irreverent sense of humor, he became the first pro hockey player to top a million Twitter followers.

In retirement, he has secured broadcasting jobs with the Arizona Coyotes and Barstool Sports largely on the back of his popular social media persona.

“I have an outlet where I can basically create my own job,” Bissonnette said. “I’m a free thinker, and it’s kind of allowed me to do things my way and not have to conform to what big corporate brands or big companies want you to be.”

Finally, it’s a question of principle.

If a popular athlete feels strongly about a political or social issue, he can use his massive social media platform to speak out. In a polarized culture, this immediately makes an enemy of roughly half the public.

Experts in the field of social media training differ on the advice they give to athletes who feel strongly about a cause.

Kevin Long is the CEO of MVP Sports Media Training. Looking at the matter through a financial lens, he counsels athletes to keep their beliefs to themselves.

“People are watching you not because of your beliefs and politics,” Long said. “They’re watching you because you’re a world-class athlete. They want to see you on the field. They don’t necessarily want to hear what you have to say. That’s not to say you can’t say it, but from a strictly business perspective, it’s best to have those opinions and act on them in private.”

Carrie Gerlach Cecil is the CEO of Sports Media Sports Management. Looking at all the positives that have come from social media activism, she doesn’t advise athletes to keep quiet at all times. Instead, she suggests athletes who elect to speak out do so in a serious manner.

“You have to be very mindful as to why you’re doing it. You have to have a deep understanding of the cause, and then you have to understand how you’re going to use your voice, and you have to understand the pros and cons of using your voice,” she said.

Athletes using social media for these traditional reasons often don’t cause many headaches for themselves or the teams that employ them.

As the Steelers learned over the last few years, however, social media is not all heart emojis and up votes.

Martavis Bryant was suspended for a game for taking Instagram shots at teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster. Bud Dupree got into Twitter disagreements with a fan and a reporter. Le’Veon Bell essentially tried to negotiate a new contract online.

And then there’s Antonio Brown, the king of social media unrest. From broadcasting coach Mike Tomlin’s locker room comments on Facebook Live after a 2017 playoff game to essentially asking for a trade on Twitter last September, Brown used his phone to turn an entire NFL organization on its ear.

“It was a gong show with the Steelers on social media,” Bissonnette said. “Antonio Brown is a polarizing athlete. He’s got a lot of game and a lot of personality. Ultimately, it gets to a point where it’s, ‘Does this guy’s act outweigh what he brings to the team in the game and his output on the field?’ It seems like it wasn’t worth it anymore, and it was a distraction.”

Brown’s antics typify the kind of situations pro teams hope to avoid, and they have taken measures to prevent social media blow-ups in the future.

The first measure is education.

The Pirates hold a training session with players at the beginning of spring training, discussing which messages are appropriate to share and which aren’t. For instance, in some cases, announcing an impending personnel move on social media would put the team at a competitive disadvantage. That is frowned upon.

“If you say something on Twitter, it’s like you’re standing at a podium, saying it to the world,” director of baseball communications Jim Trdinich said. “You cannot take back what you said.”

The Penguins try to catch players at a young age, including social media training as part of their annual development camp for prospects.

“That’s their introduction,” vice president of communications Tom McMillan said. “You’re now a professional athlete. You represent the Pittsburgh Penguins. Please keep that in mind. We think it’s important at that entry level to have that talk.”

The Penguins also conduct one-on-one sessions with veteran players who are more active on social media and provide players with photos and video clips to help keep their social media feeds positive.

For the Steelers, social media training for rookies and veterans is mandated by the NFL at the league level.

Despite the landmines their players have stepped on in the past few years, the Steelers are not trying to stifle their players on social media entirely. Such an effort would be ineffective at best and un-American at worst.

“We just want to make sure we educate our players to make them understand that what they do on social media, other people in the organization have to speak for it as well,” said director of communications Burt Lauten.

Lauten’s comments touch on a method of social media management teams probably will find more effective than any training-camp seminar they could conduct: peer pressure.

During the height of their social media upheaval last season, the Steelers found themselves fielding media inquiries in the locker room about comments made by former players ranging from Rashard Mendenhall to Josh Harris.

Veteran guard Ramon Foster issued an edict asking any former players with a beef of any kind to contact himself or Maurkice Pouncey in an effort to handle the situation privately.

His message was simple, and it provides a potentially effective rule of thumb for all athletes: Don’t say something on social media that teammates will have to answer for.

“Everybody’s got a story, but everybody doesn’t need to tell the story every single time,” Foster said. “I’m fine with whatever happens, whether good or bad. I just don’t want to (have to address it) if it’s not my situation or our situation or the locker room’s situation. Why do we have to answer for something, and the guy that said it isn’t in the locker room? You can say whatever you want to, but moving forward, if we can’t directly answer for it, keep that heat, please.”

Beyond pressure from teammates, social media messes can be avoided via a strong disciplinary presence at the coaching and management levels. That is a standard Tomlin and the Steelers aspired to but didn’t exactly reach during their trying 2018 season. It’s a standard other successful teams already have established.

“Look at the Patriots. Prime example of a team where any kind of thing like that off the field, and they’re shipping that guy out of town,” Bissonnette said. “Time tells us when you get guys that just kind of fall in line and are there to put in the work, that’s when you win championships. It’s not very often where it’s chaos in the locker room and there’s a lot of different personalities pulling the rope in different directions that it really works out.”

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