NFL players among sports’ leaders on Twitter
The phone lit up and vibrated with yet another text message. It was Chad Ochocinco, proclaiming his Twitter greatness – again. It was maybe his sixth text over the course of June, sent to remind a reporter just how prolific Ochocinco had become on the micro-blogging website.
“I am leading the Twitter world,” the text read. “ESTABAN OCHO CINCO, stay thirsty my friends.”
For many athletes, Twitter has become a release – a breezy 140 character status update (called “Tweets”) offering a little nugget of entertainment to fans, friends and media. For the Cincinnati Bengals wideout, it has seemingly crossed over into an obsession. Since joining the site in late May, Ochocinco has posted more than 2,800 times to his account (@OGOchoCinco), which is more than any other athlete in that time span. It averages out to roughly one post every 15 minutes for an entire month (without sleep). And it’s nothing less than an orgy of personal detail and thought, the collective body reading like a song from The Police: Every breath Chad takes, every move Chad makes, he’ll be tweeting you … and tweeting you … and tweeting you.
From calling out other NFL players: “Somebody please tell Shawne Merriman(notes) that’s [h]is ass on Dec. 20th, relay the message to the rest of the D, especially Cromartie!!!! child please.” – June 24
To spending Father’s Day pondering the amount of time he spends with his four children: “I wonder if Brad Pitt and Angelina are around theres [sic] all the time. [What] happens when its time to film a movie 6 months out the year[?]” – June 21
To overreacting to the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett: “Okay, first Mrs. Fawcett now Mr. Jackson, please tell me this is a mistaken rumor, if not this is just as sad as 9/11.” – June 25
In a way, Ochocinco has showcased the best and worst of the Twitter world when it comes to athletes. He has spent a month in almost constant contact with his followers – updating them on his offseason workout regimen, his meals, his beefs with other players, and his thoughts on virtually everything. Some of it has been personal and intriguing. Some of it has bordered on gibberish or struck an offensive cord (Ochocinco profusely apologized on his account for the 9/11 comparison).
But taken as one solid string of interaction, it’s a picture perfect example of the power that athletes are suddenly enjoying with Twitter. In only a little more than a month, Ochocinco has collected nearly 25,000 followers – people who subscribe to his tweets and get each update from Ochocinco delivered to their own Twitter account. That number gives him one of the NFL’s most influential followings, offering an unfettered platform for one of the league’s most colorful voices. And if some analysts are right, Ochocinco’s popularity only scratches the surface of where Twitter could be taking the NFL once the regular season starts.
“Twitter really represents for the first time the opportunity for the athletes to speak their own voice and get it out to the public in an unfiltered manner,” said David Katz, a onetime Yahoo! media executive who has since founded sportsfanlive.com. Katz’s current company features an offshoot called athletetweets.com, the Internet’s leading collection of Twitter accounts belonging to athletes. “That [unfiltered voice] is both good and bad for them, potentially. There are pitfalls as well as opportunities with that.”
The NFL has clearly realized as much. Since the offseason began, no professional sports league has been as deeply involved with the site as the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell (@nflcommish) posted a handful of updates during the NFL draft. The New York Jets (@nyjets) revealed their draft selections on Twitter before they were announced at the podium in New York City. Multiple teams have created Twitter accounts to deliver news of player transactions this offseason. And of course, the number of legitimate player accounts have grown exponentially this offseason. Twitter doesn’t keep track of the number of accounts from NFL players, but a count by Yahoo! Sports identified at least 312 players who have joined the site.
“We wear helmets. You’ve probably got 20 players out of the whole National Football League that can go anywhere in the states and somebody will know who they are,” said the Chargers’ Merriman, who posts under shawnemerriman. “So for the most part, the only thing that people know about us is what they read. So they kind of make their own opinion of you by reading. Well, in this case, I post five times a day minimum, so you kind of see I am just a regular guy, too. I’m working on some of the most vigorous workouts out there in the offseason, but I eat Fruity Pebbles, too.”
– DeAngelo Hall(notes), Redskins cornerback
In a world where players often live on cell phones, the ability to seamlessly post to Twitter has been a driving force behind the site’s rise in the NFL. Players post from the airport, the beach, from workouts and dinner – and almost every conceivable place in between. And in a way, it has put them in the driver’s seat in the media world.
Whereas players once needed a print, Internet, radio or television conduit to effectively get their message out, players are already finding that Twitter allows them to break news in all four of those mediums – on their own. Beyond the 140 character updates, players have moved to posting pictures and video on their sites. When Ochocinco and Merriman got into a Twitter donnybrook last week, it featured multiple video clips going back and forth, including Merriman at one point threatening to “wring” Ochocinco’s neck.
But lost in the hyperbole of the moment was something unique: players actively playing out their boxing-esque hype sessions directly through their own words, pictures and videos. All the while, drawing fans, media and other NFL players into the experience. But these Twitter components have made the medium as dangerous as it is compelling and powerful.
“Your message definitely gets twisted and folded the way the media wants it,” said Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall (@Dhall23). “If you have something posted on your Twitter site, that’s exactly what you have to say. It hasn’t been doctored up by a writer or any of the media. It’s straight from your mouth to the fan. It definitely kind of clears the air a little bit when someone tries to quote you.”
It’s a direct forum that Hall would have like to have when he experienced his fallouts in Atlanta and Oakland.
“It would have been a great way to just say ‘Hey, this is what happened. [Bobby] Petrino said this, I said that,’ ” Hall said. “Especially with Oakland. I could have said ‘I was released today. They didn’t want to pay me X amount of money next year.’ It would have been a great outlet to get those messages out. That’s what I think makes it so unique now. People are using it to their benefit to get whatever message they want out.”
Already, the sports world is finding out how perilous that can be. Earlier this month, Tony La Russa settled a lawsuit against Twitter over an account that had been impersonating the St. Louis Cardinals manager. The grounds, according to the suit, were “dilution, cybersquatting, and misappropriation of name and likeness.” The NFL has had its share of problems, too, with major stars like Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) and Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware(notes) both seeing real news stories written based on things written in fake Twitter accounts. As it turns out, neither has a Twitter account.
But even legitimate accounts can create havoc. Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love inadvertently broke the news of coach Kevin McHale’s firing on his Twitter account. In March, Milwaukee Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva drew the ire of his franchise after tweeting during the halftime of a win over the Boston Celtics. Buffalo Bills wideout Terrell Owens(notes) caused a flap too, making national news when he tweeted about being denied a rental property because the neighborhood didn’t want the “drama” that would come with Owens.
All of which raises an intriguing point as the NFL season looms: How long before the league adopts a Twitter policy? As it stands, no professional sports league has one – a fact that likely exists because it would infringe on free speech. But in a league like the NFL, where information is tightly guarded, many observers are anticipating a crossroads.
“I think there are going to be a handful of seminal events that change the direction of the way this whole thing operates,” said Katz. “… Athletes do need a little bit of a wake-up call. They just need to be reminded, if they’re out at a club and they’re having a couple drinks and they start twittering, it’s like sticking a camera on themselves and being on ESPNews. You are now in front of the world whenever you’re putting something out there.” One NFC general manager, who declined to be named, said he told his public relations staffers to monitor players’ Twitter accounts. He added that those accounts would be held to the same standard as if the athlete were speaking to any other form of media. If something is deemed to be detrimental to the team, players will be subject to a fine or suspension, in the same manner that they would under any other part of the team’s personal conduct policy.
“You don’t talk about game plans,” said St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson (SJ39), when asked to describe where he would draw the line on Twitter. “I don’t think, personally, that you should call anyone out in terms of an opponent. Just be respectful to your team and your franchise.
“Sometimes people get really raw and talk like they’re having a one-on-one conversation. But this conversation is open ended. … To me, it’s more dangerous than having a press conference in the locker room. I will have someone [from the team] pull my coattails if I’m going too far with it, or they’ll end the interview. When you’re on Twitter, you can say whatever, whenever you want to say it.”
Indeed, the unfiltered nature might be the one red flag in an otherwise overwhelming tide of opportunity. Already, athletes are trying to find a way to take their audience and create financial opportunities with products. Others are sharing their political and social views. Still others are merely enjoying the experience of having a soap box.
Through it all, the NFL is continuing to embrace a new artery between its game and the masses of worshippers. Ochocinco may have summed it up best when, after his Twitter fight with Merriman, he placed a call to an old-fashioned form of media – a reporter – and explained himself.
“You been around long enough to know how I am,” Ochocinco said. “I’m always gonna talk. It’s just me being me.”