Twitter Temptation: Athletes’ Growing
Fascination with Social Media
By Abram Erickson
“Welcome to The Players’ Tribune, a new media company that provides athletes with a platform to connect directly with their fans, in their own words. Founded by Derek Jeter, The Players’ Tribune publishes first-person stories from athletes, providing unique insight into the daily sports conversation. Through impactful and powerful long- and short-form stories, video series and podcasts, The Players’ Tribune brings fans closer than ever to the games they love.”
So reads the opening welcome to the website of The Players’ Tribune, one of many new platforms supporting the growing relationship between professional athletes and social media. Founded on October 1, 2014, The Players’ Tribune is the brainchild of Jeter, the former New York Yankees superstar, whose vision is to provide athletes with a way to speak directly to their fans, sans the typical media interference.
The Players’ Tribune has been at the forefront of the increasing trend of athletes wanting to take their public image into their own hands. For years, athletes relied on press conferences, interviews and public appearances to project their image to the public, but all of these avenues had something in common: gatekeepers. Reporters, TV stations, newspapers and the like have had total control over what they choose to show or hide about the athletes they cover, and athletes have often resented this power.
But then, the internet emerged, and social media sites began to develop that—for the first time—allowed the possibility of athletes releasing the information that they wanted, on their terms. Since this time, athletes have been drawn to social media because of its ability to let them carefully curate their public image, and while some of them have had more success than others, it has become evident that we now live in an era where athletes are more able than ever to maintain their own personal brand using social media.
Where’s the Evidence?
Just because our first example, The Players’ Tribune, doesn’t seem to fit today’s typical definition of social media doesn’t mean Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are lagging behind on the trend of increased social media use among athletes. In fact, these platforms rank the highest in terms of overall use among both athletes and the general public.
Two studies on the social media habits of young adults stand to illuminate the prevalence of social media use among athletes. The first study, conducted by the Pew Research Center, details the percentage of all Americans aged 18-24 use various social media platforms. The second study, conducted by Fieldhouse Media, illustrates the percentage of college athletes that use the same social media platforms. To compare the findings of both studies, I combined them into a table:
|Platform||Pew Research Center|
Percentage of Americans 18-24 that use:
Percentage of College Athletes that use:
It is immediately evident that athletes use these particular social media sites at much higher rates than their non-athlete counterparts. On top of that, the percentage of athletes using social media has greatly increased in just the past few years. When compared to the 2013 statistics of the same study by Fieldhouse Media, in four years athlete engagement has grown 4.5 percent on Facebook, 26.2 percent on Instagram, 23.8 percent on Twitter, and 44.2 percent on Snapchat.
What Do the Experts Say?
Justin Shockley, in his paper “Unfiltered? A Content Analysis of Pro Athletes’ “Twitter” Use,” asserts that there are multiple reasons that athletes find social media so appealing. He says:
“A combination of factors encourages honesty including a culture focused on celebrity gossip, worldwide fan bases, as well as downtime that can be boring for an athlete with a fast-paced lifestyle. Additionally, professional athletes are often left feeling alienated from the world because of their lifestyle and overall disconnect from the real world (Ronay, 2009). This honesty has created obstacles for not only athletes and their sport but also for the journalists who cover them. The technology and immediacy of sites such as “Twitter” have created a situation in which sports stars no longer need someone to be their voice to the public (Emerick, 2009).”
Beyond simply the reasons that athletes use social media, Karen North, a communications professor and director of digital social media at the University of Southern California, described the benefits of using social media for athletes in an interview with ESPN. She said, “There’s no better way to reach your fans than social media. If you want to think about what is the greatest strength of social media as far as a communication medium, it’s that we can all have what feels like a personal relationship with people that have some sort of celebrity. It’s the most amazing thing for audience-building and building a fan base.”
Players themselves also acknowledge the benefits of using social media to connect with fans. Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons forward and NBA star said in an interview with CBS Sports, “There’s help for being able to express it the right way. I think the cool thing is, I can just take a moment, say exactly what I want to say and be done with it — instead of maybe getting my words mixed around a little bit and not getting exactly what I want out there.”
Social Media Backfires
It’s clear to see that athletes have fallen in love with social media. Whether they use it as a release from the pressures of their job to be completely honest with fans, or as a tool to grow their personal brand, it doesn’t seem like this connection will be going away anytime soon.
When NBA player Charlie Villanueva was disciplined for tweeting during halftime of a game in 2009, it forced the three major American professional sports leagues to institute policies regarding when athletes can post on social media.
This shows that the leagues understand that social media is here to stay, and is something they’ll be forced to either contend with or embrace.
While social media surely has its positives, in terms of allowing athletes to connect with their fans and grow their personal brands, it also has its disadvantages. Recently, multiple athletes have come under fire for social media posts that contain derogatory material. While the majority of the controversies stem from tweets dug up from the players’ past, they prove how dangerous social media has the potential to be for an athlete’s reputation.
The most recent example is that of Josh Hader, a relief pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers. When Hader was called in to pitch during the 2018 All-Star Game, multiple racist, homophobic, and other offensive tweets were brought into light. The tweets were from his high school days, but the MLB still required Hader to attend sensitivity training classes after being made aware of the tweets.
Additionally, in early 2017, Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Receiver Antonio Brown used Facebook Live to livestream the Steelers’ locker room, including coach Mike Tomlin’s postgame speech, drawing the ire of both the NFL and his team. The NFL said it violated their social media policy, and the video captured his coach using profanity to describe using another team, causing fallout in the locker room.
It is actions like these that suggest that athletes’ involvement with social media is unlikely to diminish. Luckily, some athletes, like Lebron James, NBA superstar who currently has 41.85 million followers on Twitter, work to promote a good perspective on using social media as an athlete.
“I know what I want out there, I know how I feel, and I’m a guy who doesn’t speak without knowledge,” James told CBS Sports. “You always have to be conscious of what you type, because once you hit send, then it’s out there for the rest of your life. You’ve got to be conscious about that and you don’t ever want to do that irrationally.”
Here’s hoping that the growing number of athletes using social media follow James’ lead.
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