May 16, 2011

Striking Out: Professional Athletes and All That Social Media Hype

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Occasional Sportswriter

NUKE: I love winning, Crash, you hear me? I love It. Teach me everything.
CRASH:
It’s time you started working on your interviews.
NUKE:
What do I gotta do?
CRASH:
Learn your cliches. Study them. Know them. They’re your friends. Write this down. “We gotta play ’em one day at a time.”
NUKE:
Boring.
CRASH:
Of course. That’s the point. “I’m just happy to be here and hope I can help the ballclub.”
NUKE:
Jesus.
CRASH:
Write, write —”I just wanta give It my best shot and, Good Lord willing, things’ll work out.”

— from the 1988 classic “Bull Durham” script by Ron Shelton

I don’t get it.

For years, sports fans have complained about boring sports interviews. You know, the usual vacuous pre-game/halftime/post-game blather like, “Gotta give the other guys credit. They’re just a real good team and they just outplayed us. So we just gotta take it one game at a time and play harder and make the plays and put more points on the board.”

Almost as mind numbing as a social media conference, huh?

Then the two came together: athletes and social media and — boom goes the dynamite! — some of the athletes actually proved to have opinions and personalities. But instead of welcoming this development, sports fans and the socialrati went all Church Lady. “Oh no he didn’t!” “Oh yes he did!” “OMG what was he thinking?!”

Sure, some of the posts athletes make on social media are inane or inept. The L.A. Times wrote a whole article on the topic: “When Athletes Post On Twitter, Controversy Can Follow.”

What were people expecting? Have they seen Twitter lately?

Inanity and ineptitude are as common as typos. Most “Twitter Trends” look like assignments for People Magazine or the National Enquirer. I recently followed one prominent social media expert, and her tweets included musings about the weather and retweets of other people flattering her.

If that’s what the experts are doing on Twitter, what do they expect from multimillionaire superhumans who spent most of their college years hitting other superhumans on a grassy field?

But a few unfiltered athlete tweets led to a brouhaha, which required trotting out the social media experts. And here’s what I noticed: their comments could apply to ANY medium. Check out these “insights” from the L.A. Times article:

  • “You can start up a business and you can build a brand very quickly. But the downside is, you can destroy a brand very quickly.” (And that’s different from television because…?)
  • “Some people just don’t realize the harm you can cause. Some of these processes aren’t really inherent to people who don’t do journalism.” (And that’s different from a radio interview because…?)
  • “The shorter the message, the easier it is to distribute and the easier it is to understand.” (And that’s different from a quick sideline quote because…?)

And that’s one of the biggest problems with the social media lovefest going on right now: treating social media like it’s something completely different.

The social mediaphiles strut and gush as if celebrity scandals and political revolutions and marketing conversations didn’t happen decades before 8% of the US adult population experimented with Twitter. (Compare that to the percentage of American adults who have experimented with other hallucinatory substances.)

And that distorted view of social media leads some people — say, professional athletes — to think that the old rules regarding traditional media don’t apply. “Oh, this Twitter thing, it’s different, right? So I don’t have to speak in clichés anymore, right? I can just be myself, right?”

It certainly doesn’t help when the “experts” start preaching “authenticity,” a word that’s so overused and abused it now carries as little weight as the word “cool.” One social media guru quoted in the L.A. Times article even said that athletes shouldn’t avoid talking about sex, politics and religion, since avoidance would be “inauthentic.” To which I say, so what? As I noted in an earlier article, many fans love the idea of “authenticity” until they actually see it.

So, sorry, Nuke, it’s time to stop listening to the fanatics who misled you into thinking social media was a special place. It’s just another medium where you can still get burned and burned badly. That means you need to keep listening to your old-school PR rep, lawyer, agent and manager: the ancient rules of decorum still apply.

Now, as a fan, I hope athletes flout the rules. I love it when they flaunt their personalities and opinions. That’s why Charles Barkley is the most watchable guy in sports journalism. That’s why media-magnet Dennis Rodman got all the movie roles and media-shy Clyde Drexler got retirement — and Rodman didn’t have Twitter around to make it happen.

As with all other media, you can get fame or get flamed. So while the equipment may have changed, the rules of the game are still the same.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

6 Responses

  1. Great style and, wow! brand new content!!! I do enjoy reading a blog spot that actually provides food for thought… and that I’ll remember reading tomorrow… thanks

  2. Great post Freddy. As a sports buff, I enjoyed reading this post and it took me back to the fundamental question I always like to pose when it comes to athletes in the media: are they role models? should they be? Arguments for both sides always seem valid to me.

  3. Freddy — Well said! I’d add one thing to your last sentence, however. The rules of the game are indeed the same, but Social Media’s got a helluva fastball. Because of that I think you can argue that it’s easier to hit it out of the ballpark, but also easier to completely strike out or even leave on a stretcher…

  4. @Stephanie: Got plenty more food for thought where that came — some of it bite size. Check out some of my older posts.

    @Fernando: To some kids, athletes are definitely role models. (I hear some guy named M. Jordan sold a lot of shoes at one point.) At the least, they generate a lot of press coverage.

    @Peter: You have a point, though I’d put my money on TV in a media fight.

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