Penalty or free speech? NFL, teams struggle to police players on Twitter

As outspoken personalities make big waves a few words at a time, the image-conscious league admits its hands are tied

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White's tweets have gotten him into hot water, but he says he enjoys using the platform because "it's your words, straight out."
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant retweets a photograph of a woman's vagina.

Wide receivers Roddy White of Atlanta and the New York Giants' Victor Cruz unleash Twitter rants in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict.

Wide receiver Jabar Gaffney tweets to an opposing team's fan who chided him and his team's performance, “… get a life or kill urself.”

Such 140-character-or-less disseminations by players are easier to jump on than a fumble. But with nearly 1,200 NFL players using Twitter accounts, according to the website, the NFL and team officials have thus far been unable to scrutinize and monitor all the messages that players deliver to the burgeoning social-media and networking universe.

And it is those kinds of controversial tweets that prompt Kevin DeShazo, whose Oklahoma Citybased Fieldhouse Media instructs and educates high school and college athletes on the use of social media, to cringe.

"Look, players aren't the only ones who tweet (dubious) things," DeShazo said. "But their tweets are the ones that make the headlines. And, let's be honest, the headlines are usually negative."

Not surprisingly, Bryant quickly deleted the distasteful picture, which he nonetheless defended as "only a retweet" and not an original message. Within hours of commenting on the Zimmerman case, White (who suggested the six jury members "should go home tonight and kill themselves") and Cruz (who predicted Zimmerman wouldn't "last a year before the 'hood catches up to him") apologized for their emotional, knee-jerk reactions and removed them. Gaffney later said his account was hacked and deleted his entire account.

Kevin Long, who operates a company in West Lafayette, Ind., that monitors Twitter and other social-media accounts, said that when such negative tweets emerge, there are parents who recoil as well.

"It's almost gotten to the point where, unfortunately, you kind of get used to it," said Long, the founder and CEO of MVP Sports Media Training and U Diligence. "You shake your head, but honestly, we're probably beyond the shock or surprise of it now. I've gotten numb to it. These guys react to something and then, predictably, when the (stuff) hits the fan, they issue an apology 24 hours later … But the damage is already done."

The emergence of social-media outlets, Twitter primary among them, has rendered the incidence of such imprudence much less improbable. And in light of these and other notable Twitter missteps -- like the tweet of then-Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall, who questioned the decision to kill Osama bin Laden and forfeited a lucrative endorsement deal as a result -- they are increasingly problematic for the NFL and its 32 franchises.

What can be done to better monitor and even police the Twitter opinions of the players? Beyond educating players about the responsibility and accountability expected of them, maybe not a whole lot, several team and league officials conceded.

'Entitled to an opinion'

"You educate them in the offseason, during the season, whenever," said Les Snead, general manager of the St. Louis Rams, noting that his team is one of several franchises that brought in former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer to speak to players about the responsibilities of social media. "But these are grown men. They think for themselves and make their own decisions. You just hope that it sinks in."

It hasn't sunk in enough for some fans.

Deborah Davis of Dallas labeled Bryant's Twitter misstep "disgusting." A 36-year-old Cowboys fan and mother of a preteen son, she said she has not yet stopped her son from using Twitter or following Bryant.

Falcons fan Chad Linder of East Point, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, said his two sons, 14 and 11, have White-style No. 84 shirts that they wear "all the time." Linder said he still permits the boys to wear the shirts but has told them they cannot follow the wide receiver on Twitter because of his indiscretions.

"It's just been too many times," he said. "He needs to grow up and understand people are reading that (stuff)."

The NFL and even -- to an extent -- the NFLPA, the players' union, have responded to the popularity of social-networking sites by making Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and other venues a cautionary point of instruction at the annual rookie symposium that they sponsor jointly. It has been, for the last few years, a requisite area of emphasis at mandatory preseason meetings for individual clubs. Although he is not technically a consultant, Fleischer, who now operates Ari Fleischer Sports Communications in Manhattan, has advised the league and individual teams. Neither Long nor DeShazo counts NFL franchises as clients, but both have also spoken to clubs. The services both provide are available to individuals.

DeShazo, who works with 40 colleges and is more geared to education than monitoring, said he is "hopeful" that he will be retained by an NFL team. Long, who has made a presentation to league officials, allowed that his pursuit of NFL teams is "probably at a standstill." Long urges athletes to avoid what he calls a Googlable moment and to abide by his mother rule ("If you're posting something that could make your mother spill her coffee or to keel over when she reads it, don't."), but the message hasn't reached the ears of every NFL player.

The explosive growth of social-media outlets, though, may simply be too much for the NFL to successfully tackle. Even a coach as conservative as Atlanta's Mike Smith, who has been asked numerous times about the blowback that White has encountered because of various Twitter indiscretions, has defended the right of his star wide receiver to take his feelings and opinions public.

There are some people in Falcon management who privately acknowledge it might be better if White were suffering from a sprained thumb so he couldn't tweet rather than the ankle tweak currently hampering him. Those people suggest there's not much they can do to about White's 140-character vents.

The same reactionary instincts that lends itself to success on the field, where muscle memory and rote usually supersede deliberation, seem to play even better off the gridiron than on for some guys. Social insight and unfiltered outrage are more popular now than in the past. Still, the league's lone Twitter-related rule stipulates only that players cannot tweet from 90 minutes before kickoff until they finish their media responsibilities after a game.

There are, of course, First Amendment implications for limiting or policing players’ tweets.

"A man, whether he's a football player or not, is entitled to an opinion," NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth told reporters last spring.

Unfiltered voice

Long's monitoring model isn't particularly complicated and alerts university officials within two to three minutes if a player uses one of approximately 500 specified words in a dispatch -- most of them dealing with drugs, alcohol, guns, sex, violence or upcoming opponents. Because the players must voluntarily download the program's software, that could avoid First Amendment issues. But there are current or pending privacy laws in roughly a dozen states that might preclude or challenge the system.

And the fact is, players seem to enjoy tweeting for several reasons. It allows them an individual voice that is not tied to traditional media, which some players find untrustworthy, provides a connection with fans and thus builds their profile, and gives them a form of expression that isn't subject to someone else's interpretation.

James Sanderson, an assistant professor and the program director of communication studies at Clemson University, termed Twitter a "slippery, treacherous slope." Yet players are more aware than ever of selling themselves, of creating their brands, and feel their unvarnished feelings are an effective tool. Even if their hair-trigger thumbs misfire when PR people and club officials historically would have been the spin doctors, the players now are eager to assume that role.

"You can be more engaging," said Detroit tailback Reggie Bush, who has almost 3 million followers, many of them probably acquired when he dated Kim Kardashian.

"It's your words, straight out, that you're (distributing), and you're in control. You can talk right to (the fans), really" said White, who is one of the NFL's most prolific and controversial tweeters and whom DeShazo called "probably the worst Twitter (offender) in the league."

The situation isn't hopeless, said DeShazo, who termed Twitter a "modern-day autograph," but he suggested it might not change much until players understand the medium's reach.

"They've got to understand that when they put something out there, it's in the public realm," he said. "Whether they have two followers or 2,000 or 2 million, it's out there … And especially when it gets into politics or society and stuff, there's going to be a reaction, some of it negative. (Players) definitely need more self-control, because the teams can't exert the kind of control they used to have.

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