Column: Star Athletes Tweeting Away Iconic Status
By Clay Andrews '13, Staff Writer
For the sports world, social media like Facebook and Twitter are beginning to serve as connectors between the lives of fans and athletes. Ranging from everyday updates to colorful opinions and scripted apologies, the possibilities for athletes on these sites are only just being tapped. It certainly is a change from a time when athletes only communicated with their fans through press conferences or prepared interviews. Somehow the informality of the new social media coaxes players into saying what they really think, rather than the sugarcoated clichés we generally get from interviews. But is this development good for the athlete-fan relationship?

Think of it like a new couple moving in together for the first time. Sure, they get to see more of each other, and in theory, since they like each other, that is a good thing. But is that added intimacy really what they wanted?

Before Facebook and Twitter, sports stars had allure, a little bit of mystery. You had to piece together their personalities through the glimpses you got in games, postgame interviews and the occasional Sports Illustrated feature. Where pieces were missing, you could project what you wanted on them. For instance, Pedro Martinez in the late ’90s and early ’00s was everything I wanted him to be. He was intense for his starts, as most athletes are when they compete, but he also had a great sense of humor. You would see him joking around and laughing with other Red Sox players in the dugout on his rest days, flashing his infectious smile. Pedro was also passionately loyal, both to his country and his team. He embraced the Dominican supporters who would line the bleachers hanging Ks for strikeouts in center field and plunked anyone who threatened his teammates. That was my Pedro, created from my limited exposure to him and my own imagination. I didn’t really know Pedro at all, but it didn’t matter. In those days, athletes truly belonged to us fans.

Now, Facebook and Twitter add another dimension to what we know about our favorite athletes. We have moved in together, and we are starting to really get to know theses sports stars through the constant stream of access we have to them. There is a direct link to their minds and personal lives that wasn’t there before. Had these social sharing sites existed back in the day, a few distasteful tweets or status updates could have destroyed the Pedro that I wanted to know. Even casual tweets or updates can dispel the mystique that drives the athlete-fan relationship. With a beep or a rumble, your iPhone can tell you that your favorite sports player is off to Starbucks to pick up the new Orange Spice Iced Latte because he/she just can’t get enough of it.

Information like that is a bit of a wakeup call. It forces you to realize that this is a person like anyone else who goes to work, has faults and enjoys the little things in life. For us fans though, these stars aren’t supposed to be humans like you or me — they are supposed to be idols. Michael Jordan can’t be MJ if I know he just hit up the Wendy’s drive-through because he was craving a Frosty; it’s like finding out that Superman is obsessed with coupon shopping. It’s demystifying and sad.

Those kinds of daily routine tweets and updates are the tip of the iceberg, though. It is the colorful tweets and posts that truly damage the idealized image of our beloved athletes. Many athletes freely talk trash in the comfort of this cyberspace environment, creating a fake tough-guy community. Plenty of sports stars called out Jay Cutler via Twitter for coming out of the NFC Championship game this year, a bold action that would have been inconceivable through interview. Buffalo Bills’ receiver Stevie Johnson tweeted, apparently to God: “I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!!” after he dropped an easy game-winning touchdown against the Steelers.

I don’t see anyway Johnson could have walked into an interview and scorned God for making him drop the ball in the auditory equivalent of all caps and multiple exclamation points. LeBron James has on several occasions called out his critics, even preaching the lessons of karma after the Cavs lost to the Lakers earlier this year. Almost all of these outbursts require apologies after the fact, too. But often times these athletes apologize through Facebook or Twitter — a solution that seems too easy to be authentic.

Still, other athletes have blamed hackers or fake accounts for their offensive tweets and posts, a dubious practice that only increases the ease with which our sports stars can tarnish their respectability.

Clearly the media love these new sources of controversial quotes. For years sports journalists have been stonewalled by the tired formulas that have become the expected norm for sports interviews. “We take it one game at a time,” “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and coaches” and “We work hard everyday to get better” are just some of the empty responses that have been ingrained into newsrooms everywhere. Just check out the baseball classic Bull Durham, where Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) learns the unexciting art of the postgame interview, improving upon his initial attempt, which sounds like a surfer recalling an out-of-body experience while tripping on acid. Completing an unmemorable interview is considered a skill in sports, and lots of pro teams have rookie camps that spend time teaching players what they are expected to say to the media. For some reason it seems like the say-nothing-controversial coaches are behind the times and haven’t addressed these online means of communication, as players continually cast a poor light on their respective organizations with their reckless online comments. Don’t get me wrong - I like emotion, personality and a little drama here and there. But I’d rather see it on the field, or even during a press conference, rather than the excess of detached online sentence fragments we get via social media today. It seems cheap and inauthentic, like asking someone to marry you by text message.

I realize a collective nostalgia for the sports heroes of old is not going to stop the rush of modernity. But I fear that under this new, intimate athlete-fan relationship, there will soon be no stars untainted by disconcerting or bone-headed tweets. The numbers of players who still abstain from the attractions of Facebook and Twitter are dwindling, but they may hold the key to finding a balance between intimacy and mystique in a changing sports world. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers, for instance, shuts down his accounts from August until the end of the season to avoid any distractions. If all athletes did that then us fans could get our fill of juicy gossip during the offseason and also enjoy no-nonsense season time, which would help our stars recharge their mystique. It’d be like moving in together, but only for the summers.

Issue 15, Submitted 2011-02-16 19:06:10