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For Sports Leagues, Twitter Is a Double-Edged Sword

August 07, 2009 07:30 AM
by Mark E. Moran
As athletes are increasingly sharing their personal lives and opinions on Twitter, leagues struggle to balance fan engagement with inevitable controversy.

Athlete Tweets Cause Controversy

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In March, the Women’s Professional Soccer League became the first sports league to allow players to send short messages to fans over the popular social network Twitter during games. The lure of this experiment was obvious: Twitter has a huge, fast-growing user base, and sports figures are some of the most widely followed users. NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, for example, is followed by nearly 1.9 million Twitter users.

Writing for NBA.com, SLAM Magazine’s Vincent Thomas captured the appeal of Twitter. “[W]e're getting random, almost whimsical thoughts from these Twittering dudes that would normally strictly remain as voices inside their heads,” he said. 

But Thomas sees Twitter as empowering players as well: “[A]thletes are taking re-ownership of their image. Twitter is a place for them to say what they feel, deny false claims, offer some quick insight on an upcoming game, maybe even quell a controversy without the use of traditional outlets.”

As with any new technology, however, the power of Twitter must be carefully harnessed. As several recent announcements and incidents show, sports leagues are struggling to balance the potential for player-fan engagement with the inevitability of embarrassing situations.
For now, most sports leagues are officially leaving it up to individual teams to set policies for their players to follow. According to Sporting News, an official for the NFL told ProFootballTalk.com that tweeting during games would not be permitted. The league, however, is still drafting a broader policy, The New York Times reports. Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano has banned his players from using Twitter, and other teams, such as the San Diego Chargers, merely urge their players to use discretion when using Twitter.

An unnamed NFL team executive told The New York Times that players should “not tweet about anything more than what you are eating.” Apparently even that harsh admonition is too permissive, because this week the Chargers fined cornerback Antonio Cromartie $2,500 for complaining about training camp food over Twitter.

Players in other leagues have also caused controversy. In April, San Francisco Giants reliever Brian Wilson blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning on an afternoon game. The night before, according to the blog Walkoff Walk, Wilson appeared to be sending tweets from a bar until after 11:00 p.m. Wilson protested to beat writer Andrew Baggarly that his tweets were contrived and sent from his hotel room; he soon deleted the tweets in question.

In June, the public learned of the firing of Minnesota Timberwolves coach Kevin McHale from a tweet sent by player Kevin Love, who claims he was unaware the information had not yet been made public.

In perhaps the most controversial case to date, The Denver Post reported that Denver Nuggets guard J.R. Smith was sending tweets “written in a way that is commonly associated with the Bloods street gang.” A day later, Smith, who recently served 30 days in jail in connection with a fatal traffic accident, sent what he said would be his last tweet.

Related Topic: Troubles With Twitter

ESPN Employees
Sports network ESPN recently issued social media guidelines to its employees. It told employees, “The first and only priority is to serve ESPN-sanctioned efforts, including sports news, information and content.”

Teachers & Social Media
Like athletes, teachers must also carefully balance their professional and personal lives. After a large number of cases last year in which teachers lost jobs over postings on MySpace and Facebook, the Ohio Educational Association explicitly discouraged teachers from creating social media accounts.

CEOs & Social Media
A study released by UberCEO in June showed that almost none of the CEOs of Fortune 100 companies have social media accounts. Instead, many of these companies have designated employees who engage users in social networks.
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