Social life: Reasons vary, but most #Badgers on Twitter
Running back Melvin Gordon has the most Twitter followers of any Wisconsin football player, and Badgers athletic staffers have lauded the Heisman Trophy candidate for his positive social-media presence.
MADISON, Wis. — Gary Andersen stood inside a back hallway that connects the studios at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., three weeks ago and pulled out his smartphone. Wearing a light gray suit, white button-up shirt and red tie, Wisconsin’s football coach slowly began typing in a series of characters to mark the first tweet on his official Twitter account, verifying every step with the school’s sports information director between appearances on the TV network.
What followed was a somewhat comical exchange to many adept social media users, captured on video and posted to the football team’s YouTube page.
Andersen: "Where’s the hashtag?"
Sports information director: "Go back to the bottom."
And with that, Andersen had become the latest member of the Badgers football program to join Twitter, posting a picture of himself alongside college football icons Chris Spielman and Brian Griese with the caption: "2 new followers. #Badgers."
In the weeks since Andersen’s first tweet, he has gained more than 9,200 followers. Andersen may have been late to the social media game, but he acknowledged its importance to avoid losing ground in recruiting battles with athletes who spend substantial time on Twitter. The more positive presence a coach and a program has on Twitter, he said, the better.
Andersen’s reasons for joining Twitter differ from many of his players, some of whom set up accounts to maintain relationships with friends and family back home. Others use it simply as an outlet to keep up to date with news, while still more utilize the tool to showcase their personalities to a wider audience.
Regardless of the motive, Twitter has become an important part of the daily culture among Wisconsin’s football players.
Unofficially, 95 players on the current roster were found to have a Twitter account, from James Adeyanju to Konrad Zagzebski. Only 12 players aren’t signed up. And each player with — or without — an account has a story about what he values most.
"It’s a good way of being a positive role model," Badgers tight end Sam Arneson said. "I think a lot of the guys use it effectively."
Among the greatest benefits of Twitter for Wisconsin’s football team is the number of people the athletes are capable of reaching. Being part of a high-profile college team means followers want to engage players and peek at their personalities off the field.
When Wisconsin’s sports information department held its annual team social-media meeting before the season, staffers singled out cornerback Sojourn Shelton and running back Melvin Gordon as examples of spreading positive messages with their Twitter feeds. Shelton tweeted a picture of he and his grandmother over the summer, and Gordon thanked students for purchasing football tickets online during the first morning of availability.
Shelton, in fact, has developed a bit of a cult following among fans — and even players — for both the frequency and randomness of his tweets. In an unscientific poll of Wisconsin football players, he was deemed to be the most unusual tweeter on the team.
Shelton tweets about anything from enjoying the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie to watching HBO’s "Hard Knocks" to posting screenshots of his performance in the NBA 2K video game series. Recently, he posted a picture of a grape Smucker’s Uncrustable sandwich and described it as "amazing."
"I think he just is bored," Gordon said. "He just tweets emojis sometimes. It’s stupid. But it’s still pretty funny."
"(Shelton is) big on that Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, everything," safety Peniel Jean said. "He’s on there, on the plane, right before bed, who knows? He’s just on there every second. He’s king of the social media. He loves it."
"He’s a big gamer," fullback Derek Watt said, "always tweeting about how bad he beat the guy and how he made him quit. I see that a lot."
Shelton, an engaging and outspoken sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said he embraces the opportunity to show his goofy side with an understanding that it falls within the realm of acceptability. Two of Shelton’s grandparents have Twitter, he said, in an effort to stay in touch with him while he is away at college.
"Social media for me is a way to communicate with my friends back home," said Shelton, who has nearly 4,000 followers, the fifth-most on the team. "I’ve got a lot of friends back home that I don’t get a chance to talk to on the phone every day. We just go back and forth tweeting. Especially around this time, it’s football time. Me and my friends, we’re really passionate about our football teams. If you ever pay attention to my tweets, you’ll see me going back and forth with those guys. Mainly it’s just about football."
Of course, if football is Shelton’s first passion, NBA 2K appears to rank second based on his tweets. Shelton described his constant video-game-screenshot posting of player statistics as another way for him to express himself, even if he draws ribbing from other Badgers players.
"It’s me having fun with my friends," he said, "as long as I don’t tweet anything crazy."
Not every Wisconsin player finds social media as appealing as Shelton does. Quarterback Joel Stave, for example, is among the small group of team members without a Twitter account.
Several fake Stave Twitter accounts have popped up over the past two years, including a couple of weeks ago, when the sports information department had to notify people it was a hoax. Through it all, Stave has never felt compelled to create a real account.
"I’ve got nothing to say on Twitter," Stave said. "I’ve got a Facebook and I’ve never posted a status before, so why get a Twitter and never say anything, either?"
Freshman nose guard Jeremy Patterson is another player who doesn’t have Twitter.
"I just never really thought about it," he said. "I don’t know why."
Most of Wisconsin’s players fall into the category of using Twitter on a limited basis, preferring to look at selected followers rather than send out tweets.
Zagzebski, a defensive end whose account is protected and can only be viewed by approved followers, limits his usage to tracking his favorite sports teams, comedians, teammates and friends.
"I’m a pretty low-key guy, so I try to stay off the radar as much as I can," Zagzebski said. "I enjoy it. I like reading the news and doing that kind of stuff, so that’s what I really use it for. I’m pretty private. I don’t tweet that much."
Even some of the most heavily followed players prefer a minimalistic approach. Brothers Derek Watt and T.J. Watt have the second- and third-most followers on the team, respectively, thanks largely to the social media presence of their older brother, Houston Texans Pro Bowl defensive end JJ Watt, who has more than 440,000 followers.
"I’m not just a guy that’s going to tweet anything right off the top of my head," Derek Watt said. "During camp, it’s a little slower, obviously. I try to stay off of social media a little bit but keep people in the loop."
Derek Watt tweeted Aug. 1 — three days before fall camp began — a photo of him and his brother, T.J., standing on the Camp Randall Stadium field with the caption: "It’s about that time! Working to get ourselves on the field together this season! #BashBros." He has tweeted only once since, to thank fans for participation in the team’s Family Fun Day.
T.J. Watt, along with wide receiver Reggie Love, both said they have deleted Twitter applications from their phone entirely during fall camp. Watt deleted Facebook and Snapchat as well, and many players decide to stay off social media for long stretches during the season.
"We’re waking up early every day, and I’ve got to go to bed," T.J. Watt said. "Stuff like that can keep you up at night. You don’t have to look at what other people are saying about us, so you can just kind of focus on yourself."
It’s a good way of being a positive role model. I think a lot of the guys use (Twitter) effectively.
Tight end Sam Arneson
In the age in which much information can now be shared — when one can tweet about what television show he is watching, what meal he is eating or what video game he is playing — players must be careful about the contents of those messages.
For that reason, Wisconsin’s sports information staff holds its annual meeting before the season with the entire team on how to use — and not use — Twitter and other forms of social media, citing the best and worst tweets from players in recent years.
"We go through compliance all the time," Zagzebski said. "It’s always like, ‘Make sure you know what time you’re tweeting stuff.’ If it’s a Friday before a game at 2 a.m., you’ve got to be careful with those kinds of things, so we go through that type of training. I think the guys on Wisconsin do a pretty good job of keeping it clean and letting the fans enjoy what they can."
Though Shelton and Gordon were singled out for positive messages, not every 18- to 22-year-old maintains a clean social media sheet. The slip-ups can be plenty embarrassing, and Wisconsin’s players have learned firsthand the perils of making poor decisions on Twitter.
Nose guard Arthur Goldberg, a redshirt sophomore, remembers two years ago during the team’s preseason social media meeting when the staff singled out one of his tweets from the summer before his first year with the program. Former coach Bret Bielema even read it aloud.
Goldberg declined to discuss the contents of the tweet but said he learned a valuable lesson that day.
"Everybody gave me crap for that the whole year pretty much," Goldberg said. "I deleted it right away. Coach B said it out loud. I literally left the meeting and went and deleted it. That’s why I don’t tweet much."
Gordon, meanwhile, said position coaches monitor tweets from their players just in case they stray — eight of the team’s nine assistants have Twitter accounts — as does the football sports information staff, which has a Twitter following of more than 75,000 from the program’s official account. He recalled an instance in which former running backs coach Thomas Hammock texted him to delete a tweet of questionable taste a couple of years ago.
"It was just like a dude had a sucker in his mouth and he was like twirling it," Gordon said, breaking into laughter. "I didn’t think it was bad. It was so funny."
Gordon deleted the tweet anyway for fear of offending anybody.
What can go wrong when you do? In July, Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand said the team pulled a scholarship offer from a recruit after he saw the player use poor judgment in a tweet.
”Dropped another prospect this AM due to his social media presence . . . Actually glad I got to see the ‘real’ person before we offered him,” Hand tweeted.
Gordon, a Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the most well-known college football players entering the 2014 season, has more Twitter followers than any player on the team (roughly 18,500). Now that he is in the spotlight, he said he understood the pitfalls that can come with using social media.
"You try to watch what you say sometimes," Gordon said. "Sometimes you have to watch your grammar. You get a little nervous. You’ve got to double-check things. I’ve got my roommate on it. Read this for me before I tweet it. It’s little things like that you try to do because you know you’ve got so many followers. You’ll look so stupid if you mess up."
The message coming from coaches and sports information staffers about social media, Wisconsin players say, is loud and clear: Have fun, but be smart.
"I will never have a tweet I’m going to regret because the coaches put a very tight leash on that," Badgers nose guard Warren Herring said. "I want to maintain a good image, to show who I really am."