MADISON, Wis. — The most outspoken member of Wisconsin’s basketball team has gone quiet. In the Twitter world, at least.
For Sam Dekker, a fun-loving 19-year-old sophomore who especially enjoys interacting with fans about basketball, shoes and Milwaukee Brewers baseball, the decision did not come without some thought. But given the potential distractions social media can bring during the heat of basketball season, Dekker has opted to put his account on lockdown mode.
"You probably haven’t seen me on there," Dekker said. "I don’t have it on my phone. It’s just unneeded voices that go in your head. People say block that out, but you’ll see some things that it’s tough to block out. But another thing is I always see it as praise can be just as dangerous as negativity. And sometimes you get too caught up in people saying how great you are. And sometimes you get too caught up in people saying how much you suck.
"That’s just fans talking sometimes. The more you can avoid that, I think the better it is for you mentally as an athlete. I decided to get off there during the season, and I’ll continue to do that next year, too. It’s just nice to get away from it all during the season and leave your thoughts to yourself and your team."
Dekker has roughly 27,600 Twitter followers, which is more than twice as many followers as anybody else on the team. He also has not tweeted anything on his account since Jan. 20. And with 12th-ranked Wisconsin (25-6) gearing up for the Big Ten tournament this week, followed by what Dekker hopes is a lengthy NCAA tournament run, Dekker realizes avoiding at least some social media forums is the best way put his full focus on basketball.
For a brief while, Dekker created a second Twitter account that was locked and only available to friends of his choosing. Even then, however, he still was faced with distractions from people commenting on the account. He still maintains an Instragram account, he said, because the format is more conducive to interacting with friends and fans.
"You don’t hear all the voices," Dekker said. "It’s not people posting words. I just think it’s nice to look at some people’s pictures. I see some things that are interesting, so I’ll put them up. A lot of them don’t have to do with basketball. That’s one way I stay in touch with people."
Twitter, in particular, has become a hotly debated topic in recent years with the growing — and occasionally uncomfortable — interaction between players and fans. And college basketball has been at the forefront of the debate this season. After Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart was suspended three games in February for shoving an opposing fan during a game, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo blamed, in part, the pressures social media had created on players.
"I’m a social media basher," Izzo told reporters last month. "I hate it. I don’t think there’s any question that everything’s changed in the last three years because kids are going into these events — you never get away from it — you go there and you get chewed on and that’s normal and you can take that and you get on the bus and you get chewed on by their fans or your fans. Telling a kid not to read it is telling a kid not to breathe."
More recently, Iowa forward Zach McCabe responded to his critics with vulgarity on his Twitter account following a Feb. 22 loss to Wisconsin. He told fans who were harassing him to "suck a fat one all of you." He later deleted the post and apologized, but not before Iowa coach Fran McCaffery banned his entire team from using Twitter for the rest of the season.
Dekker, for one, took note of just how much one tweet could affect a team and a season.
"I understand that he was frustrated," Dekker said. "I understand Zach McCabe’s not a bad person. He was frustrated after a loss. He made a mistake. He’s apologized for it. I’m sure he wishes he could take that back. You can’t change the past now. If people are good people, they’re not going to be saying that stuff again to players. And he’s not going to retaliate like that again.
"I think he learned his lesson. And I think we all learn a lesson from that in realizing that the least amount said is the best. It sucks that he had to be the one to make that example for people, but I think he kind of taught a lesson to some people like hey, this is not what you want to do."
Dekker, some fans may recall, has been involved before in a brief Twitter spat of his own, though on a far lesser scale. Back in August 2012, before Dekker’s freshman season at Wisconsin, he tweeted about then-Brewers relief pitcher John Axford and voiced his disapproval with Axford’s pitching.
Dekker tweeted: "Seriously. I don’t want Axford to ever have the ball in his hands ever again."
Axford then tweeted at Dekker: "Personally I don’t care what freshman basketball player thinks! #HowCoolAreYou?"
Dekker responded: "Just was frustrated. My bad @JohnAxford – go brew, make a push"
Dekker said the two smoothed out their differences over a few direct messages on Twitter. And while he noted there was a fine line between being a fan and taking things too far, he did not necessarily regret that particular incident.
"We were very immature about it," Dekker said. "I don’t have any hard feelings against him. He’s a great pitcher. I was just a kid being stupid and I have no right to say that stuff to professional athletes who are at a different level in every regard than me. I was being one of those stupid fans that opened their mouth a little too much on there and got some backlash for it. No, I don’t regret it. It’s all in clean fun now, and we look back on it and laugh."
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, who does not have a Twitter account, also does not put a specific social media policy in place. He said team members are told to simply use common sense.
"The upperclassmen handle that with the underclassmen when they came in," Ryan said. "We obviously have some guys on the team, I guess, that are more outward with their social communication.
"But, hey, I was 18, 19, 20, 21. I have no idea what I would have been putting out there, but I’ve never been the kind of person to do that anyhow because I think what’s your business is your business, and why would you need to tell everybody where you’re going to eat? Or who you saw who with. Hey, I saw Johnny with Sally. I was never that kind of guy. So I don’t understand all this stuff really. I guess I’m more private. But I’ve never had to give a stern lecture. Never had to. So far."
Badgers guard Ben Brust, who has the second-most Twitter followers on the team with more than 11,700, said he recalled a speech once given by former NFL coach Herm Edwards to rookies at the league’s offseason symposium. In the speech, Edwards made a point to tell players "don’t press send" because a poor tweet can’t be taken back.
"It’s true," Brust said. "You’ve got to be conscious of what you’re saying on there. But we’ve got smart enough guys to be smart about what they say."
Dekker, meanwhile, has other business to attend to over the next few weeks. The 6-foot-7 forward ranks second on the team in both scoring (12.9 points) and rebounding per game (6.2). Wisconsin, which begins postseason play as a No. 2 seed in this week’s Big Ten tournament, is a viable threat to make the final weekend of the college basketball season in early April.
That means Dekker’s legion of Twitter followers will have to wait a bit longer to hear from him again.
"Once the season’s over, I’ll be back on," Dekker said. "I’ll be tweeting at people. But I just think it’s good to limit your distractions during the year."