— These days, it’s not enough for an athlete to study his opponent.
He’s got to figure out his followers, too.
That can be quite a challenge at times for Florida Marlins outfielder Logan Morrison, one of Major League Baseball’s more prolific, interactive and entertaining Twitter users (@LoMoMarlins). He has more than 70,000 followers, which equates to roughly a week’s worth of crowds at Sun Life Stadium in 2011.
“This one guy today, he literally made fun of me and told I was a piece of s---,” Morrison said before a late September contest. “Then he came back with, ‘Give me a Re-tweet.’ That’s just confusing to me. I don’t even know what that means.”
Athletes are still learning what it means to have knocked down the wall between themselves and the public, through the use of social media.
Every day, it seems, there are a few more athletes who dip their toes in the Twitter pool. In April of 2009, an internet developer named Chad Walter launched Tweeting-Athletes.com as a weekend project, meant to track athletes on Twitter. He found 40 or so accounts. Now, on a site, he has list of more than 5,000, divided into more than a dozen sports, from NFL to NHL to MMA, and he acknowledges that he’s still missing plenty.
One of his more recent additions is Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem (@ThisIsUD), who had resisted joining the site for two years before finally relenting. On the day he did in mid-October, Heat teammate Dwyane Wade tweeted that Haslem’s life would be changed as he knew it.
“I see a use for it now,” Haslem says, referencing the ongoing NBA lockout. “I didn’t see a use for it before. Things being the way they are, it’s a good way to keep my fans, the people who support me in the loop to what’s going on. I can’t do that through basketball right now.”
In his first two weeks, Haslem tweeted just 25 times, mostly innocuously, resisting confrontation. He did lash out twice, at a follower — who was actually a fellow Florida Gator and long-time supporter — for telling players to accept the owners’ proposal in labor negotiations.
“That’s the reason I’ve stayed off it, because it’s not right to respond,” Haslem says. “They always tell you, if you see something negative, don’t respond, but that’s not in my nature. So that was part of the reason why it was hard for me to join. But I’ve learned that you can’t really respond to the guy who has three followers. You got to let them have that.”
In this case, the follower had 25. Haslem, by that time, already had more than 9,000.
Haslem has the benefit of following thousands of fellow athletes into the Twitter fray, so he can see what works, and what doesn’t.
Walter has seen a significant shift in a short time.
“In 2009, when athletes would get on, they had no filter,” Walter says. “Whatever came to their mind, they said. You had athletes like D Wade cursing, and using the F-word. You just don’t see a lot of that anymore. I think teams have gotten involved, giving advice.”
Teams have. Leagues have.
Certainly, agents and marketing advisors have.
Even so, there tends to be a learning curve, a period of trial and error for everyone.
It takes time for athletes to understand the size and diversity of the audience. It takes time for athletes to comprehend that not everyone who cheers you on the field or court cares about — or agrees with — anything else that you happen to do or say.
And it takes restraint not to retaliate, when some of those so-called fans aren’t shy about sharing their feelings.
“There’s positives and negatives, mostly positives,” says Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely (@jayfeely), who has tweeted nearly 10,000 times and accrued more than 40,000 followers. “The good thing about it is that you don’t have to go through medium of traditional media. You can express yourself, get your message across, promote a foundation or a cause, increase your name recognition.”
“Way more pros than cons,” Morrison says. “Getting to know your fan base is a pro. Them getting to know you is a pro. Letting them know what is going on as far as with you, whether it’s injury, personal stuff, charity work, it’s a way to communicate. And I don’t need to call up the local news station to put on a camp, I can just do it on Twitter.”
But there are cons.
“The negatives are it exposes you to criticism, especially in season that you wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to. And it gives you an opportunity to stick foot in your mouth,” Feely says. “Which some guys have done.”
Even a polished communicator like himself.
“A couple of times,” he says.
He says that one controversy was partly a product of one of the features that makes Twitter attractive to many:
The brevity it requires.
“You are limited to 140 characters,” Feely says. “Sometimes you may take four or five thoughts, and split them up. All people see is one tweet, and that can get mischaracterized.”
In late December 2009, after Bengals receiver Chris Henry died due to a fall off the back of a truck — a tragedy that occurred during an alleged domestic dispute. Feely tweeted, among other things: “Chris Henry seemed to have turned his life around. But, you can’t live on the brink of destruction without inevitably falling off the ledge.” After many in the Twittersphere responded angrily, Feely acknowledged that he might have done “a poor job of expressing my sympathy while trying to look at the bigger picture” of why it happened and how to avoid similar situations in the future.
“I had a cousin who passed away after some of same struggles,” Feely explains now. “He had just started to turn life around, and something from past had reached out to grab him. But in the context of one tweet, it seemed insensitive.”
That was a minor storm compared to what Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall (@R_Mendenhall) stirred up, following the death of Osama Bin Laden.
“What kind of person celebrates death?” Mendenhall tweeted. “It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We've only heard one side...”
That’s all the public wanted to hear at that time. And Mendenhall’s questioning of whether Bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks didn’t go over any better. The Steelers' president, Art Rooney II, was publicly critical of Mendenhall, who eventually apologized, saying he was just trying to generate conversation and “get people to think.”
The problem for many athletes is they have come to think — because their exploits have been celebrated since they were so young — that everything about them is universally admired. That bubble bursts as soon as they step outside of it. No doubt many are widely beloved; Travis’ list of the 10 most followed on Twitter-Athletes.com have between 2.3 and 6.5 million followers apiece. Yet what many find, upon checking their “@” mentions — which is the way to get a Tweeter’s attention — is that even their usual supporters can turn on them quickly, when those supporters determine they are not performing, competing, healing or communicating in an acceptable way.
And, through the anonymity and distance of Twitter, it’s easy for fans to air their grievances.
It’s much harder to refrain from returning fire.
Johnson, embroiled in a contract dispute, tweeted: “Can these fake Titan fans STFU on my timeline I don't have a regular job so don't compare me to you and I can care less if u think I'm greedy.”
Foster, sidelined by a hamstring injury, tweeted: “4 those sincerely concerned, I'm doing ok & plan 2 B back by opening day. 4 those worried abt your fantasy team, u ppl are sick.”
Foster, who often takes a playful tweeting approach, went even further, posting a photo of his MRI. That only made matters worse — not just with his fans, but with Texans management.
Every tweeting athlete is familiar with the Twitter Tough Guy, the one who chooses to follow, but whose only object is to antagonize.
“All I ask is respectful dialogue,” Feely says. “That’s part of what makes America great, you have that freedom of speech and ability to communicate. I don’t know why it is on internet that you can say something you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face.”
Fans can be fickle, and brutal.
“I don’t know if they really mean it, or just trying to get under your skin,” Morrison says. “But either way it doesn’t bother me. My Mom said if they make fun of you, they’re just jealous, so I’m just going to stick with that. Say whatever the hell you want. But if you see me in a dark alley, you’re probably not going to say anything other than ‘Hey, how you doing?’”
Sean Smith’s (@SeanSMITH4) team hasn’t been doing well this season. As of this writing, the Dolphins slouched at 0-6. He joined so that fans could get to know him better, “the other side of me, other than the football player.” By staying on the social media front lines, the starting cornerback has gotten to know the extent of their wrath. After Tom Brady torched the Dolphins in the season opener,
“Oh my God,” Smith says. “I think I am by far the most hated Dolphin on this team. Got to be. Hands down. Take a vote. I’m the most hated. Why? Because we’re (0-6) and I think I probably talk the most on Twitter. 'Sean’s going to talk back to me, so let’s lash out on him.' I’ve heard it all. I’m not going to lie, it’s tough. They say some things now. Then you realize this guy has like three followers. Why am I sitting here and talking back to this guy? Skip right over this guy and reply to somebody else.”
Yet Smith tweets on, in part because of the promotional opportunities it’s created.
And so does Morrison, even though his tweeting — some of which is risqué — has created complications for himself. It’s not the love-life advice (“Fellas, if she doesn't kiss you by the 3rd date, she is in it for the free food...”) or the announcements of his bowel movements that usually get him in trouble. It’s more the times when he’s been critical of Marlins management. Marlins president David Samson publicly warned him to think more before tweeting, and Morrison even posted a cartoon avatar of himself with tape over his mouth and “Censored” written across.
Melinda Travis, a former Orlando Magic and Major League Baseball employee and the co-founder of PRO Sports Communications, posted an entry on thesportsprblog.com outlining the “10 Mistakes Athletes Still Make on Twitter.”
The overriding message?
“It’s not just a way to communicate in 140 characters,” she says. “It’s a business tool. You have to have a goal when you go on Twitter. If your goal is to fight with fans, that’s not really a good goal. If your goal is to build personal brand, you will approach it better.”
To that end, she advises athletes to treat Twitter hecklers like they treat stadium hecklers.
“What do you do?” she says. “You ignore them. Just tune it out. That’s tough, especially with athletes.”
Still, Twitter does have a “block” function.
“You cannot take things personally,” she says. “Criticism of your play and criticism of you personally are two different things. And there’s very little to be gained by getting into it with a fan. Even if a fan is completely out of line, you never win. It’s just not worth it to your reputation, not worth it on so many levels. Pay attention to the fans who are really supporting you. Find the comfort there.”
She reminds athletes that for everyone who is not reacting to what athletes put out in a public forum, millions others are, and are forming perceptions. Children. Corporations.
She’s not against athletes expressing political views, as Feely often does.
“But understand if you go there, there’s a pretty good chance you are going to alienate 50 percent of the people who follow you,” he says.
NBA players alienated some fans with a campaign that was supposed to generate support, collectively tweeting out hashtags such as #LetUsPlay and #StandUnited. Travis doesn’t believe that strategy was nearly as effective as the as the Twitter Q&As hosted by specific players such as Jared Dudley, who tried to explain the issues in an digestible way.
“Super smart,” Travis says.
And Travis, who speaks to professional teams, believes it is smart for athletes to try social media, as long as they seek help to approach it properly.
“You kind of do your fans a disservice when you are not there, because your fans are,” Travis says. “Twitter is not for everyone. But there’s Facebook, Flickr, video. Anything you enjoy that is not going to take too much time. It helps give more fans more of you.”
Feely has been giving fans plenty of himself for a while. But he took a lengthy Twitter holiday with his Cardinals struggling this season.
“I’m not tweeting at all until we win,” Feely says. “If there’s something meaningful that I am trying to have a conversation or dialogue, that has real meaning outside of sports, then I will.”
Trying to win an argument with followers while your team is losing?
He knows that’s a losing proposition.
Ethan J. Skolnick is a sports columnist for the Palm Beach Post. Follow him on Twitter at @EthanJSkolnick.