Who knew that little bird would end up having so much power? Forget the Yankees, Steelers, Lakers or any other dominant sports franchise. The sports juggernaut of the 21st century, it turns out, is the seemingly innocent social networking website, twitter.com.
In recent years, Twitter has mad
e fools out of athletes, 140 characters at a time, and over the past week it has claimed a couple more victims. Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall dominated headlines early last week for the comments he posted following the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
Closer to home, Univers
ity of Washington hoops recruit Tony Wroten used Twitter to lambast a Seattle Times reporter who wrote a story about Wroten and another athlete getting credit for a class at Garfield High School that didn’t exist.
Wroten didn’t say the article was inaccurate, he just ripped a reporter for doing his job, and used some offensive language in the process. Wroten eventually deleted the message, but as so many others have found out in the past, once you post something on the Internet, it’s out there forever.
The lesson, once again, is that Twitter always seems to win. In recent years, that little blue bird has made more athletes look bad than Michael Jordan, Barry Sanders and Randy Johnson did in their primes. And quite frankly, it always will as long as athletes and other public figures don’t follow some basic rules when it comes to speaking their minds in public forums such as Twitter.
But what’s that you say? There aren’t basic rules for athletes on Twitter?
Locally, a number of Seahawks players are frequent Twitter users, though for the most part they have managed to stay out of trouble. A member of Seattle’s media relations department said the Seahawks have no official rules or guidelines for players regarding social networking sites, but that they do talk to players about it. Jeff Bechthold, the director of athletic communications for the University of Washington, said any rules or policies are made on a team-by-team, coach-by-coach basis.
Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid acknowledged that his team and others in Major League Soccer will have to start doing more to make players aware of the dangers of instantly sharing their thoughts with thousands of followers.
“It’s definitely something that we’ve got to address and talk about,” Schmid said. “At this stage there is so much social media that’s out there. … It’s the same as making a statement to the press. You know that what you say is possibly going to be quoted or possibly appear, so you’ve got to make sure what you say is within the boundaries of what you think is appropriate.”
But for the time being, it appears we need some ground rules. And while nobody asked me, I’ll be happy to offer a few suggestions that can help everyone out there avoid the trouble that Mendenhall and so many others have made for themselves. This list is hardly all-encompassing, but hey, at least it’s a start.
• Don’t engage in fights with fans. Given an anonymous voice, fans can feel liberated to get nasty, especially if you lose a game or didn’t play well. Just let it slide. They may be wrong, or they may be jerks, but even if you’re in the right, remember: there are no winners in a Twitter fight.
• Don’t get political. You know what’s great about sports? The most conservative Republican and a far-left liberal can spend a few hours actually agreeing on something. And guess what? You’ve got followers on both sides of the political spectrum. No sense alienating a good chunk of that group.
• If you are making hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, don’t complain that gas costs you $4 a gallon (this has been very popular lately). I know it stinks having to shell out a hundred bucks to fill your SUV, but you have fans on Twitter making a lot less money who feel the sting at the pump a lot more than you do.
• Don’t think deleting the Tweet will make it go away, aka, the Wroten rule. Oh you may not see it, but it’s out there somewhere. The Internet is a strange and complicated world that I don’t pretend to understand, but one thing I do know is that once it’s been posted, it can’t be completely undone.
Or as Kevin Long, the founder of MVP Sports Media Training, puts it to his athletes, don’t end up with a “googleable moment.”
• And perhaps most importantly, especially since we just celebrated Mother’s Day, don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your mom — or dad, or grandma, or grandpa — to see. They may not be on Twitter, they may not even know what Twitter is, but just assume if you post it, it can get back to them.
“The simplest thing I tell athletes is, ‘Think about your mother,'” Long said. “If your mom wouldn’t be OK with you saying it, posting it, Tweeting it, think of another way to say it or don’t say it at all. That’s really what it boils down to.”
• If you do insist on stirring up some controversy, don’t be surprised if there are consequences. Mendenhall has every right to state his opinion about Bin Laden and 9/11, but his sponsors also have every right to not like what he said, which is why apparel company Champion ended its endorsement deal with Mendenhall just days after his controversial Tweets.
Of course Twitter is usually more fun than trouble, so we shouldn’t only focus on few negatives.
• Do interact with fans, allow them to feel connected to their favorite teams and athletes.
• Do show a sense of humor. Locally, the Seahawks have a few genuinely funny players on Twitter like Matt Hasselbeck, Mike Williams and Craig Terrill. It’s fun to see those guys giving friends a hard time or sharing a funny link. The key is knowing the difference between funny and offensive, which most people do.
• Do use Twitter to do some good. Every day you’ll see athletes raising money for charity, giving prizes to fans or just making someone’s day with nice words.
• Do feel free to make simple public service announcements. Last week on Cinco de Mayo, a holiday known for partying, both Williams and Hasselbeck posted simple reminders urging people to not drink and drive. And right or wrong, an NFL athlete might get through to a teenager or young adult better than his or her parents.
Follow some of these simple guidelines, and you can avoid being the next victim of the little bird that has made so many others look oh so foolish.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.