Social media double-edged sword for athletes

Social media double-edged sword for athletes

Published Aug. 24, 2012 5:00 a.m. ET

MADISON, Wis. — Each year during the first week of fall practices, Wisconsin's football team gathers to hear a lecture on how to handle talking with the media. The message is similar to what other college football programs impart across the country.

Choose your words carefully.

"When we come into this fall meeting," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said, "we usually can pull up a half-dozen examples of our guys being knuckleheads or saying things they shouldn't say."

The examples were once scattered sparsely across newspapers and came with relatively small repercussions. But in the past couple of years, Bielema has seen the direction of the annual speech shift. It is no longer simply about quotes that appear in other publications. Now, concerns largely include what appears on a player's own social media website.


Every tweet or Facebook post serves as a representation of the player and the university. And in the 24-7 cycle of social media and news gathering, more pitfalls than ever exist for athletes and coaches.

At some programs, coaches ban players from using Twitter entirely during the season. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher issued that decree in July after some players tweeted questionable material, including one with rap lyrics about killing police officers. Last year, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier and Boise State coach Chris Petersen were among those to ban players from using Twitter.

Bielema doesn't limit his players' use of social media, but he implores them to be smart by using sound judgment.

"I always just tell our kids to do what's right," Bielema said. "Don't do anything to draw attention to yourself other than (for) the reasons that you want. Kind of a rule of thumb is don't put anything on Facebook or tweet anything that you wouldn't want your mother to read — me included.

"I think it is tough for a 19-, 20-year-old kid. I read some of the stuff people reply back to me, just obscene, stupid, immature people. Obviously, you've got to not respond. … You see so many kids across the country that engage in some of these back and forth between fans and other people. You end up looking like a moron."


At its best, Twitter can be used to control the team message and disseminate bits of information to an insatiable fan base.

Like most college football programs, Wisconsin has an official football Twitter account that regularly tweets news, notes and stories about the team. The account has nearly 34,000 followers. The sports information department also started a Heisman Trophy campaign for running back Montee Ball on Twitter that has almost 4,200 followers.

Bielema himself provides one of the largest social media presences for Wisconsin football with nearly 20,000 followers. In the past week, he has named his starting quarterback and his six co-captains for the season on his Twitter account.

Badgers starting center Travis Frederick is among the players who have recently begun using Twitter. He and left tackle Ricky Wagner both created accounts the first week of August before fall camp began.

Frederick said his goal is to help provide information about the team that fans may not otherwise know.

"I'm not really tweeting a lot of funny things or anything like that," Frederick said. "I'm just kind of updating the fans on what's going on in our lives, especially throughout camp. I think camp is one of the most difficult or challenging things that a football athlete or an athlete anywhere can do. I think for the public to get kind of an inside look at that would be interesting."

Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor rarely tweets but uses Twitter to follow his favorite athletes or keep up with daily sports news.

"When I didn't have it, I was like, ‘Why does everyone have a Twitter? It's so stupid,' " Taylor said. "You just say what you're doing. To me, it just sounded so stupid. And maybe it is really stupid. I have it just to read these stupid comments that people say. I use it to look at ESPN or sports articles. I don't even use it myself."

Sometimes, Twitter is the only outlet a player has to communicate with the public.

Ball, who has more Twitter followers than any other Wisconsin player (32,568), recently came under fire after being assaulted Aug. 1 while walking home from a night out with friends at 2:15 a.m. Although Ball didn't speak with the media until Aug. 12, he took to his Twitter account twice before then to refute TMZ reports of his alleged involvement in a late-July fight that may have led to his assault. Police have since cleared him of any wrongdoing in the July fight.

The benefits of Twitter also extend beyond communicating with the general public or reading story links.

Badgers associate head coach Charlie Partridge uses his Twitter account not only to sell the program but also to interact with potential recruits. On June 15 of this year, the NCAA changed its contact rules to allow coaches to send recruits private messages on Twitter and Facebook.

"That's how young kids communicate now," Partridge said. "If there's a recruit that follows me and I follow him, we can direct message and it's legal as long as they're old enough. It's considered the same as an email, so that's a big part of it."


For all the benefits that come with using Twitter, some drawbacks are inevitable, particularly for student-athletes still growing accustomed to their place in the media spotlight.

Wisconsin's most recent example was tame by social media standards but still provided a window into the pitfalls of Twitter. 

Earlier this week, Badgers freshman running back Vonte Jackson tweeted that he would take a redshirt season because he didn't want to play on the special teams unit. Jackson is behind four other running backs on the depth chart and likely won't play much in the backfield.

"As much as I want to see the field this year," Jackson's tweet read, "decided to not waste a year on special teams. Going to red shirt."

Jackson's tweet came before meeting with coaches, and it has since been deleted. Jackson has not yet decided on taking a redshirt season.

Partridge, who coaches Wisconsin's defensive linemen, said that while the coaching staff trusts players to use good judgment, he also understands the importance of providing a watch over his players on Twitter.

"I'm not going to say that we don't keep an eye on them," Partridge said. "We follow them. We absolutely do. I follow every d-lineman that has one."

Although some schools hire outside agencies such as UDiligence and Varsity Monitor to keep track of players' social media usage, Wisconsin does not use an outside company. According to Wisconsin's football sports information director Brian Lucas, the athletic communications office follows as many current players on Twitter as it can find. Often, the purpose is simply to retweet interesting player tweets to the public.

"I don't really think of it as monitoring, but if we see something we think is inappropriate or bordering on that, we either talk to the kid or bring it to the coaching staff's attention," Lucas said in an email. "But over the last two years, I can probably count on one hand the number of instances that have raised any sort of concerns on our end."


Several other schools take preventative steps in the social media world by requiring student-athletes to install software that monitors their online activity in exchange for the right to play sports.

According to the Louisville Journal-Courier, student-athletes at both Louisville and Kentucky give up their online privacy rights to coaches as part of a social-media monitoring system. The software, which comes from the company Centrix Social, emails alerts to the coaching staff when a flagged word appears.

The Journal-Courier noted that Louisville flags 406 words or slang expressions that involve drugs, sex or alcohol, while Kentucky flags a similar number.

The University of Maryland does not have a software monitoring system, but the school did issue a five-page guideline for the first time to its student-athletes last year, setting ground rules for using Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites.

"If the content of your message would not be acceptable for face-to-face conversation, over the telephone or in another medium, it will not be acceptable for a social networking site," one of the guidelines reads. "Ask yourself, would I want to see this message or image as the result of a Google search tomorrow or 10 years from now?"

Danny O'Brien, Wisconsin's recently named starting quarterback, transferred from Maryland and was at the school when the guidelines were handed out. O'Brien, who has 8,707 Twitter followers, is careful about what he tweets.

He has made a conscious decision not to tweet during this football season. On July 28, more than a week before fall camp began, O'Brien tweeted: "Signing off this bad boy for a while...see yall on the other side!!"

O'Brien said his reason for limiting tweets stemmed from avoiding distractions during the season. But he also is acutely aware that sending the wrong type of tweets can be harmful for his potential career path as a football player, just as with any other job in the business word.

O'Brien recalled a team meeting a few years ago at Maryland in which a player's association executive from the NFL spoke. The representative provided examples of questionable tweets from O'Brien's Maryland teammates that already had been flagged by the NFL.

The lesson was clear then to O'Brien. And for college football players everywhere, reminders are provided in team meetings at the start of each season.

"Twitter is certainly something that's a useful tool, but it's dangerous to athletes," O'Brien said. "You've got to use it in the right way."

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.