Inside one of sports' most abhorrent trends: The unearthing of old tweets
When he swung open the door to Villanova’s banquet the night of last April’s national title game, Jay Wright assumed he had fulfilled the last of his postgame obligations.
Wright looked forward to enjoying a heaping plate of food and several glasses of wine while celebrating a national championship alongside his players and coaches and their families.
“I finally relaxed and thought, ‘This is what I love,’ ” Wright said. “That’s when our athletic director came over and tapped me on the shoulder.”
Unbeknownst to Wright, the star of Villanova’s title game demolition of Michigan had generated attention for more than just his 31-point performance. Some reprehensible old tweets from the account of guard Donte DiVincenzo resurfaced just as the 21-year-old was being named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
An August 2011 tweet contained a profane lyric from the rapper Meek Mill: “Ballin on these n – – – – s like I’m Derrick Rose.” A handful of other ill-advised tweets from 2012 and 2013 featured coarse language, lewd references to sex acts or homophobic slurs.
In a small room adjacent to the banquet, Wright huddled with Villanova administrators to craft an appropriate response to a new type of social media scandal, one born of youthful immaturity and indiscretion. Never before had a prominent college athlete endured so much criticism for tweets published before he was old enough to drive.
Initially unaware that the tweets in question weren’t current, Villanova erroneously released a statement claiming DiVincenzo had been “hacked.” The university subsequently backed off that stance when administrators realized the tweets were each more than five years old and there was no way of proving DiVincenzo’s claim that someone else must have written them.
“It dominated our time because we were trying to figure out where the tweets came from, if they were legitimate and whether we could take them down,” Wright said. “Donte said he didn’t tweet them and we believed him because it just didn’t fit him at all. It was all very new and confusing to us.”
Digging up the past
What Villanova endured last April has become depressingly common across sports recently as a generation raised with social media enters the college and pro game. At least a dozen other athletes have been forced to make public apologies the past few years after having milestone moments tarnished by the recirculation of inappropriate tweets they wrote when they were as young as 14 or 15 years old.
The first sign of this loathsome trend arrived the night of the 2015 NBA draft when two prospects spent more time huddled with their agents than they did celebrating the realization of a lifelong dream.
When the Los Angeles Lakers chose Larry Nance Jr. in the second round, fans quickly pounced on his 2012 tweet labeling new teammate Kobe Bryant a “rapist.” Nance told reporters he felt “sick to [his] stomach” over the tweet resurfacing until Bryant responded to the rookie’s apology text with forgiveness instead of anger.
Chicago Bulls first-round pick Bobby Portis also offered a humble apology that same draft night after the dissemination of tweets he wrote four years earlier disparaging veteran stars Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol. Striking the perfect tone to defuse the potentially awkward situation, Portis sent out a tweet asking Gasol and Rose what kind of donuts they liked and then brought a box of donuts to his introductory news conference.
“A bad situation quickly became a running joke,” said Rachel Stein, who handles public relations and social media for Priority Sports, the agency that represents Portis.
Those incidents undoubtedly inspired some athletes to scrub anything controversial from their timelines, yet old tweets continue to haunt draft picks in every major sport.
“You can take down the post, but it’s out there forever.” —
Villanova head coach Jay Wright
For 2016 Philadelphia Eagles fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood, it was a couple long-forgotten tweets bashing his new city. For 2017 Dallas Mavericks first-round pick Dennis Smith Jr., it was some sexually explicit tweets from his high school days. For 2018 Buffalo Bills first-round pick Josh Allen, it was a handful of racially insensitive tweets he penned as a high school student and had to answer for on the eve of the NFL draft.
This year in particular, controversy stemming from old tweets has not been limited to draft picks. Any athlete in the spotlight has become a potential target for social media sleuths, from a Final Four MVP, to a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, to a pitcher making his first Major League All-Star appearance.
On the night of baseball’s All-Star Game last July, a horde of reporters peppered Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Josh Hader about racist, homophobic and misogynistic tweets he wrote months before his 18th birthday. Hader described himself as “deeply sorry” and said the tweets did not reflect his views as an adult, but he endured boos and catcalls for weeks whenever he pitched away from home.
Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray also had to issue an apology for his language in old tweets exposed moments after he won college football’s most prominent award just over a week ago. Screenshots of the tweets spread in minutes on social media and hit the news cycle soon afterward even though Murray was just 14 and 15 when he used an anti-gay slur a handful of times to poke fun at friends.
“These incidents are definitely the new thing and I would say a pretty gross thing,” said Kevin DeShazo, founder of Fieldhouse Media, a firm that teaches universities and their athletes how best to use social media. “Should we be held accountable for things we’ve said in the past? Absolutely, if those things were said as an adult. But here we’re talking about teenagers. To hold a 14- or 15-year-old to the same standards as adults, that seems pretty unfair to me.”
There’s a misconception that it’s members of the mainstream media combing through athletes’ timelines, unearthing reprehensible tweets and timing stories to coincide with their big moments. In reality, it’s often everyday fans who are first to find and disseminate the tweets, leaving media outlets to decide whether they’re worthy of coverage or not.
For some fans, the appeal is the chance to embarrass or harm the career of a prominent player from a rival team.
That’s surely why an ardent Washington Nationals fan gleefully declared, “Sean Newcomb is cancelled,” when he posted screenshots of racially insensitive and homophobic tweets from the Atlanta Braves pitcher after his one-hitter last July. And why Braves fans, angry at the Nationals supporter who dug up Newcomb’s old tweets, retaliated by taking aim at the Twitter history of Washington shortstop Trea Turner that same day.
For other fans, the purpose of unearthing old tweets isn’t so malicious.
Will Applebee created the parody account, @OldPlayerTweets, last year when he noticed how many people liked old tweets that are funny or ironic when viewed through a present-day lens. Applebee’s knack for finding gems like this one from Pittsburgh Steelers holdout Le’Veon Bell has helped his account attract almost 200,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 100,000 on Instagram.
If youu could sit out a year of a sport youu play and your not injured or somethin else is preventing youu to play, then youu don't love it!
— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) February 13, 2013
“A couple of times I’ve probably danced on the line with things I’ve posted, but I try to err on the side of caution,” Applebee said. “The gotcha mentality has never been what this account has been about. I’m not out to damage anybody’s career.”
The story of how Murray’s homophobic tweets surfaced after the Heisman ceremony is slightly more unusual.
NFL pundit Benjamin Allbright searched Murray’s Twitter handle along with several slurs in an effort to see if the two-sport star’s baseball agents had taken the time to scrub his social media accounts of potentially offensive material. Allbright then posted screenshots (that have since been deleted) that night with the caption, “Hoping these are the tweets of a 15 year old who has since learned better, but this is a bad look for the Heisman winner.”
“People thought I was trying to take a dump on the guy on Heisman night, and that was not the case,” Allbright said. “I was trying to make a point about Kyler Murray’s representation failing him. This is Agent 101 stuff. The first thing you should do is scrub your client’s social media. Kyler’s had his baseball agent for well over a year, and they haven’t done that.”
Before Allbright deleted his tweet, USA Today spotted it. Assistant managing editor Peter Barzilai said the newspaper decided to run a story reporting on Murray’s use of homophobic language late because he is a public figure.
“Our intention in writing about Kyler Murray’s tweets was not to ruin his night or hurt him but to report the news,” Barzilai said.
USA Today received vehement backlash from readers unhappy with the newspaper’s decision to run the story even though Murray was not old enough to legally drive a car when he sent the tweets. Other media outlets including Yahoo Sports followed USA Today’s lead and reported on Murray’s tweets, forcing him to work with his baseball agents and Oklahoma officials to craft an apology within hours of the Heisman ceremony.
“I used a poor choice of word that doesn’t reflect who I am or what I believe,” Murray said. “I did not intend to single out any individual or group.”
Getting out in front
A major reason there have been so many social media scandals across sports is that agencies, pro teams and college administrators have been slow to recognize the threat old tweets pose. They have resisted taking the time to scroll through tens of thousands of their athletes’ tweets themselves or balked at shelling out thousands of dollars to third-party companies that specialize in that tedious task.
Lauren Walsh, president of LW Branding, said for three years she has encouraged agencies and pro and college teams to hire her firm to find and delete athletes’ offensive old posts. Until recently, the response was almost always that it’s not that important, that it takes too much time or that it costs too much money.
“People think it’s not going to happen to them,” Walsh said. “What we see in pro sports that makes me so upset is a lot of times we play defense instead of offense. Teams and agents wait for something to happen and react instead of being proactive and trying to prepare.”
As prominent athletes across multiple sports have been forced to apologize for old social media posts, it has finally led more agencies to take action. One hired Walsh’s firm to sweep the accounts of every NFL draft prospect it signed this past year, a decision that paid off when she discovered an array of racist and profanity-laden Facebook posts from an early round pick’s middle school days.
“The stuff that we deleted was worse than the stuff that Josh Hader tweeted,” Walsh said. “He was relieved we found it because he didn’t want the first thing someone thinks about him to be what his views were when he was 13 years old.”
Whereas some agencies and PR firms type certain keywords into a program in order to monitor their clients’ old tweets, Walsh prefers to do it by hand. She starts with the first tweet or post an athlete made and then manually scrolls through his entire timeline, a painstaking process that can take as long as six hours.
Stein said her agency has taken the same precautionary measures to monitor players’ accounts since Portis’ embarrassing tweet more than three years ago. As soon as Priority Sports signs a prospect, the agency scours their social media accounts by hand for any controversial posts that might have gone overlooked.
“We are overly cautious in our search to take down, unlike, and even remove retweets that could be looked at as offensive,” Stein said.
“This is something we automatically exercise with our future rookies, and it’s a service we’ve extended to our veteran clients who have asked for assistance as well. By searching through new players’ accounts manually, and by monitoring our current players’ tweets in real-time, we have yet to experience this situation again.”
The silver lining
There might be less objectionable material for agencies to uncover if more colleges enlisted the help of Varsity Monitor, a company that uses a computer program to keep tabs on athletes’ activity on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. The program automatically red-flags any post that includes one of roughly 400 negative keywords. Varsity Monitor employees then examine those posts and decide which need to be sent to university officials for further evaluation.
Another option for colleges eager to avoid a social media scandal is hiring DeShazo’s Fieldhouse Media to educate their athletes on how best to use social media. DeShazo visits dozens of college campuses per year, sharing ways to build a strong social media brand or demonstrating how to search for and remove unwanted old posts.
“Whatever school I go to, I’ll find the worst tweets from the kids sitting in that room,” DeShazo said. “Whatever you can think of, I’ve probably shown it – racial, sexual, homophobic, profanity. It’s a funny moment, but I remind them I found these in five minutes. Then I ask them to imagine they’re interviewing for a job and that interviewer asks if these are their tweets?”
At Villanova, Wright and his staff do most of the monitoring and teaching themselves. They’ve long relied on a simple maxim to make sure players exercise sufficient caution on social media.
“We say to them everything you put out there represents yourself, your family and Villanova basketball,” Wright said. “You have to think that way. Your actions impact everyone – not just you.”
The memory of DiVincenzo’s scandal still sticks with Wright nine months later because it was so unlike anything else he has encountered during his Villanova tenure. Never did Wright envision one of his players facing criticism for reckless language he used long before he even emerged as a college prospect, let alone enrolled at Villanova.
The lone silver lining to DiVincenzo’s situation is it has provided Wright with an effective new teaching tool. Wright can now tell future players how a social media misstep hijacked Villanova’s national title celebration, tarnished DiVincenzo’s previously spotless reputation and left the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player crestfallen only hours removed from the best game of his life.
“I think it really affected Donte personally and tainted his experience,” Wright said. “Anyone who was around Donte at that time saw how much that hurt him and can always use that as a point of reference. We also have a lot of new guys on the team this year, so we’ve mentioned Donte’s situation with the team a lot.”
Among the points Wright emphasizes most often is that ill-advised social media posts have an endless shelf life.
“You can take down the post, but it’s out there forever,” he said.
If the abhorrent trend that has forced so many athletes to apologize for tweets they wrote in middle school has proven anything, it’s that.
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Jeff Eisenberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter!
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