I’m back on track this week with my list of things that are tarnishing our beloved game of football for those of us diehard fans who just can’t get enough of all things NFL. This week brings me to the topic of social media. How athletes use it, how fans interact with athletes and how the athletes interact back with fans, and how it affects the overall harmonious relationship between the two. For me personally, I love social media. I’ve been able to connect with Steeler fans all over the place, it’s allowed more people to read my silly ramblings about football, and it’s actually become quite a helpful news source for the most part. Still, there are things I don’t like about social media, especially when it comes to the football season.
How an athlete uses their social media accounts, if they choose to have them, is more important than even they think sometimes. Whether or not they will tweet or post status updates themselves or has a handler do it for them makes a huge difference in the whole fan interaction experience. Also, how often they use their accounts plays a big role in their impact. Are they updating their accounts with every detail of their lives or are they only logging in sporadically? Then comes the topics they choose to discuss on their social media pages. What I don’t think athletes always understand is that when they take to social media to express their opinion on any number of topics, they’re essentially giving a press conference. Their tweets or status updates can be broadcasted to not just the thousands or millions of followers they may have, but millions more if it’s displayed on other athletes’ pages or gets displayed by ESPN or the NFL Network. That’s a whole lot of people that can possibly take issue, or be offended by any and all interpretations of what was written. An athlete’s tweet has on many occasions become the sole topic of discussion for sports television and radio talk shows. Not only athletes themselves, but their wives, siblings, and parents’ tweets or status updates can be used for fuel in a media firestorm if needed. Just last week a “Twitter beef” between Seattle’s CB Richard Sherman and Jets CB Darrell Revis was all the talk on the networks. I know feel a little dumber for having used the term “twitter beef”.
How an athlete interacts with their fans and followers can sometimes change your opinion of them. If they argue back and forth with fans who heckle them and then spend the next few hours retweeting people who compliment them, in my opinion, looks a little tacky. I absolutely have no idea what an athlete has to deal with on a daily basis when it comes to heckling, to be honest. There are plenty of idiots and nut jobs that will tweet an athlete or celebrity all day and all night hateful insults, just in an attempt to get some attention for it. I’ve seen racist remarks, ignorant and disgusting comments, personal attacks, and even death threats tweeted at athletes by various keyboard warriors. I have no idea how it feels to deal with that and I give some athletes a ton of credit for being able to ignore it and move on. The whole idea of being able to connect with your favorite athlete so directly and instantaneously should be a great thing, but just like everything good the idiots ruin it for the rest of us.
Speaking of ruining it for the rest of us, the whole “Catfishing” hoax that continues to surround Manti Te’o affects the social media interaction for all of us. Not only are NFL GM’s and head coaches going to look more closely at social media, but athletes (the smart ones anyway) are going to be way more cautious to interact with fans online. Now you can justifiably question the identity of almost anyone you come into contact with online. How likely is say a Troy Polamalu going to be to respond to someone reaching out to him to contribute to their charity if he can’t be certain the person and/or charity they’re representing is legit? It’s a doubled edged sword for the athletes though. They want the fame, if they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t be playing in the NFL and they sure as hell wouldn’t have a social media account in which they collect thousands of followers. They want those numbers to go up just like you and I like to log into Twitter and see that you’ve gained a few new followers. It’s an ego boost, people want to hear what you have to say, they want to interact with you, and they want to connect with you. But you have to take the bad with the good. For every few followers that genuinely enjoy what you have to say and want to learn more about you, there are a few nut jobs that will threaten to set your pets on fire or try to find out where you live so they can dig through your garbage.
Take Ben Roethlisberger, for instance. Ben doesn’t have his own Twitter or Facebook page. What he has is a fan club page that is administered by a manager who tweets and gives status updates for him. Sure Ben is missing out on the close fan-to-athlete contact he could have through social media by handling it this way but he’s also avoiding the constant heckling and being called a rapist by trollers all over social media that can clog the mentions and responses his actual fans might be trying to contact with him. How many times a day do you think Ray Lewis gets called a murderer on Twitter? How many times do you think someone mentions dogs to Michael Vick or marijuana to Ricky Williams? Take yourself out of Twitter and you don’t have to deal with that, but take yourself out and you’re missing out on actual connections that can be made with genuine fans.
The other increasingly irritating facet of social media is fan to fan interaction. During and especially following any given Steelers game there is what I like to refer to as “fan police” out and about Twitter and Facebook criticizing everyone who criticizes the Steelers for one reason or another. People who constantly take the time to pledge their allegiance to the Black & Gold and act as if those who don’t pledge in the exact same way are somehow less of a fan. First off, complaining about the Steelers is as inherited in Steeler Nation as loving the team itself. We all learned how to scream “Aw come on!” at the television just the same as we learned to cheer a sack or a touchdown from our parents and grandparents. Criticizing the team doesn’t make you less of a fan, and you shouldn’t have to justify yourself for it. Those people who take the time to call out perfect strangers on social media and question their fandom based on what they might remark about a certain play, player, or game should just go ahead and apologize to their friends for being the biggest loser they know. There are also people who take offense to anything and everything a Steelers player might tweet with regards to another team, take it any which way to describe a betrayal of loyalty if a player doesn’t express hatred towards are rivals as much as we do. People actually went after Steelers players on Twitter during the week of the Super Bowl if they expressed any kind of pick over who would win the game. Either they were a traitor for wishing the 49ers would win and thereby tie the Steelers for the most Lombardi trophies or they were a traitor for picking the Ravens to win just because we’re all supposed to hate the Ravens with every fiber of our being. The thing about Steeler fans in particular is that we don’t want to emulate or favorite athletes, we want them to be just like us instead.
Social media is only going to grow and expand in ways we haven’t even thought of yet so there’s no shutting it down or ignoring it. How the NFL deals with it, on the other hand, is a different story. Especially given how the Manti Te’o situation played out showing just how gullible or manipulated athletes can be on social media, NFL front offices are going to pay closer attention to their players’ social media accounts. No one wants the kind of ridiculous embarrassment that Te’o has gone through. There’s no telling if that particular incident will cause athletes to pull further away from fans either. Most college teams already restrict their players’ access to Twitter during the season given how many times college age kids will tweet something completely ridiculous and then a 60 year old head coach has to have a press conference explaining it. Pro athletes are another story. It’s said that the NY Jets have a list of “do’s and don’ts” in their locker room regarding the players tweeting because, you know tweeting is their major problem. Hopefully social media won’t actually ruin the NFL and can continue to allow genuine fans and athletes to connect with each other without all those idiots getting in the way.