Twitter 2012: How athletes have used social media to become the media

Several days ago, a remarkable thing happened. Athletes from across the sports landscape began speaking out about certain issues that moved them. Reporters relayed information that had nothing to do with plays on the field. Fans responded, argued and shared. It was powerful, emotional, often difficult, but definitely unique. It all happened in the aftermath of the unbearably tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. And it took place on Twitter.

One of the first athletes to tweet about the Sandy Hook tragedy was Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall. He wrote, "It hurts to hear about todays shootings. With what's been going on is it now ok to talk about Mental Health?"

Hundreds of followers retweeted him. Marshall, by virtue of his fame and his own battles with mental illness, answered his own question. Yes, it is OK to talk about mental health, because Twitter gave Marshall a forum for it.

Five years ago when Twitter was born, it was known as a simple way to convey short, 140-character-or-less messages. Now, it's become an epicenter – perhaps the epicenter – of sports news, reaction and discussion. Twitter is where sports news breaks, where it gets dissected and where it gets advanced. And in a year where more traditional places for sports discussion, like ESPN's morning show "First Take," got routinely ridiculed for questionable choices, Twitter continued to attract more and more fans, athletes and pundits wanting to "speak" and "listen" in real time. The 2012 Summer Games, for example, drew 150 million tweets, and Usain Bolt's 200-meter sprint generated 80,000 tweets per minute.

Two thousand twelve had historic heroes like Oscar Pistorius and all-time villains like Jerry Sandusky; it had a fireball in the middle of the Daytona 500, replacement refs deciding the outcomes of NFL games and a freshman winning the Heisman Trophy for the first time. All of it had Twitter as a backdrop. In some ways, Twitter itself was the story of the year in sports.

In the days following the Sandy Hook tragedy, Twitter continued to be an enormous town hall for sports figures and others to discuss the tragedy. "Seeing these babies faces," wrote former NHL star Mike Modano, "tears your heart apart." Those who tracked athletes like Modano and Marshall probably expected sports-related tweets when they clicked "Follow." But in a time of national sorrow, the chance to "hear" athletes mourn and reflect in real-time was unprecedented and mostly welcomed. By the time the first major sporting events took place on the Sunday after the shootings, we already had heard an incredible amount of reaction from the sports world. The more traditional outpouring of support – Victor Cruz donating his cleats or J.J. Watt writing "Newtown" on his gloves – came as a sequel rather than a real-time revelation.

America at its worst brought out the sports world – via social media – at its best.

There was also, however, considerable ugliness. Many sports fans blasted NBC for cutting into Sunday Night Football for President Obama's speech in Newtown, Conn. A college football player from North Alabama named Bradley Patterson called the president a racial epithet on Twitter and was kicked off the team. Patterson's tweet served as an unfortunate bookend to a year of Twitter-based racism, as LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson was crudely and savagely ripped on Twitter for his poor BCS title game performance in January. In between, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was the target of death threats and bigotry after his bad game in Tennessee, while San Francisco 49ers kicker David Akers simply quit Twitter after he got death threats just last week.

[Related: Tweets of the year from the world of sports]

Twitter's best aspects are also its worst: immediacy and intimacy. Fans seeking closeness to athletes can get it in a way never before possible. A retweet from a sports star is the new autograph, accessible (at least in theory) to a fan who can't get anywhere near a game. Sam Gordon, the 9-year-old pee wee football player from Utah, got an invite to a U.S. Women's Soccer game via Twitter, even though she didn't even have an account. And sick kids can feel the presence of their favorite athletes through a Twitter mention. One of the most bittersweet aspects of athletes granting Make-A-Wish days is saying goodbye at the end of the meeting. Twitter can help ease the pain of going back to treatments and hospital visits. The outpouring of support on Twitter, from athletes and other celebrities, was so strong for a 9-year-old brain cancer patient named Ryan Kennedy that he trended on Twitter before he passed away in May.

The power of Twitter has multiplied significantly in its five years in existence, but in a way it has the same pull it did when it began. The very first athlete verified on Twitter, Shaquille O'Neal, wanted to reach past the media and the Phoenix Suns' marketing staff to interact directly with fans. The director of digital media for the team, Amy Jo Martin, saw an opportunity and left her job to help O'Neal and other celebrities expand their social media outreach. "He wanted to start tweeting," says Martin, who now has 1.2 million followers, "and nobody in the building knew what Twitter really was."

Even in those early days, there were hints of the legitimacy issues Twitter would eventually face. By getting verified, O'Neal could assure fans that he was really Shaq. This year, trusted NFL reporter Adam Schefter was bootlegged by a fake account titled @adARNschefter. Many believed the dispatches from the made-up feed and retweeted fake news. There was a fake Hank Aaron account that drew 10,000 followers in a matter of hours. And on the same day as the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide in late fall, an account purported to be run by Belcher's agent appeared. It promised to contribute money to Belcher's orphaned child for every retweet. Hundreds retweeted that too, and the account turned out to be a fraud.

O'Neal was not a fraud, and he became one of the leading voices on Twitter. More than six million followers after he and Martin began their journey, the "Digital Daddy" announced his retirement from the NBA via a video on Twitter. It was Martin who was holding the camera.

"We did it from his home," she says. "The NBA didn't know he was retiring. His followers got to hear it first. He became the media that day."

Becoming the media is something that happened over and over again in 2012, never more prominently than in the moments after the infamous Seahawks vs. Packers game on Monday Night Football in September. The NFL's much-despised replacement referees called a controversial last-second play a touchdown, giving the game to Seattle. Anyone who watched the game wanted a reaction from the Packers (including Y! Sports' Michael Silver, who was seen running out onto the field to get a comment from quarterback Aaron Rodgers). Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, appearing at his press conference after the game, fought back the urge to rip the referees, out of fear of league reprisal.

One Packer, however, didn't care about the penalty.

"F--- it NFL," tweeted Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang, "Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs."

Before social media, Lang's feelings would probably have never been known. Instead, his blast got nearly 100,000 retweets and 30,000 favorites. Lang's opinion became big news, so big that his tweet was relayed more than any other in 2012 besides Obama declaring "Four More Years" on Election Night and Justin Bieber saying "RIP" and "I love you" to a terminally-ill child who passed away. Lang's tweet was instant access to a locker room everyone wanted to visit at that heated moment.

[Video: Reliving the quirky and awkward sports moments of 2012]

Other tweets got even closer to the action. One of the most famous dispatches of the year came from NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski, who tweeted a photo of a Daytona 500 track fire from the inside of his race car. His follower count skyrocketed. During the Olympics, swimmer Tyler Clary tweeted his minute-by-minute thoughts on his gold-medal race during the tape delayed re-air of the final of the 200-meter backstroke. The most obvious question asked by sideline reporters after a game or race is, "What was going through your mind?" Clary answered that without anyone having to ask.

Despite the push from the old guard to stop this train – Ohio State coach Urban Meyer briefly banned Twitter from press conferences in 2012, while the judge in the Jerry Sandusky case barred reporters from tweeting the verdict from inside the courtroom – the momentum will only continue. We could see tweeting during halftime of games, or even from golf fairways. The desire for access will remain high, and the desire of certain athletes to express their opinions will meet it.

The problem, of course, is the clash of those two desires creating intense emotion that may lead to regret. That's what happened to Patterson, the North Alabama player, who likely would not have called the president a slur if he knew millions would see it. It was the same for a West Virginia graduate assistant who tweeted an equally venomous opinion of Obama on Election Night. A major problem is that there is little or no training for Twitter users who may find themselves in the spotlight. College athletes have sports information directors who either guide them through press interviews or simply shut out the media altogether. But there's little or no training for how to use Twitter, which has become as much of a resource for journalists as the notepad and tape recorder.

Enter Martin, who has trained the entire Texas A&M athletic department. And although Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel was not himself tutored by Martin, he used the service to reach out to fans despite not being allowed to give interviews to the media throughout his redshirt freshman season.

"[The training] allowed them to understand Twitter as an asset," says Martin. "College athletics continue to be scared of the medium."

There's reason to be scared. Although pro athletes mostly understand who's reading, amateurs still tend to think only a few dozen followers are paying attention. That may be the case in the moment, but tweets are just as searchable as game stats. A recent New York Times story detailed a horrible alleged rape of a high school girl in Ohio by two members of the Steubenville football team. The girl was heavily intoxicated and did not remember much of what happened to her, but the boys were arrested after the police used a social media trail as evidence.

The temptation is to stay off Twitter completely. It's impossible to have your reputation ruined by Twitter if you're never on it in the first place. Yet the impulse to share is deeply human, as is the impulse to know what others are sharing. Those twin impulses have provided the engine of the journalistic industry for hundreds of years. People want to talk, and they want to know. And that will be the case no matter how many people make gaffes on social media. The hard truth is that Twitter is now a crucial part of the sports world. Twitter isn't as much of a fan IV as television, but it's catching up fast.

There is danger, yes, but also great opportunity in the worst of circumstances. Last week, former Olympian track star Suzy Favor Hamilton confessed to being a high-priced escort in Las Vegas even while she led a life as a housewife and mother in Wisconsin. It was the most embarrassing story imaginable for someone who had been a role model. Yet Hamilton took to Twitter that same day to apologize and confess her battles with depression. For at least a short time, Hamilton became the media that day. And although it's questionable whether she can ever recover from this episode, Twitter did for her what it does for Shaquille O'Neal and every athlete wanting to express themselves in 140 characters or less.

It made her a little more human.

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