PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles offensive lineman Andre Dillard was asked last week about the competition with Jordan Mailata for the starting left tackle spot and speculation Dillard will end up on the trading block should he lose said competition.
"I haven't heard anything because I don't have any social media anymore as of last year," said Dillard, the Eagles' 2019 first-round pick out of Washington State, who has faced sharp criticism since arriving in Philadelphia for having not yet lived up to expectations. He started four games as a rookie, with mixed results, then missed all of last season after tearing his biceps in late August.
"I try not to pay attention to any of that stuff because it's all noise. My job is to just keep my head down and work."
Dillard came across as a man transformed during his Zoom session with reporters. Indeed, he said he felt like a "completely different" person in some aspects, from the physical strength he gained in the offseason to the surge in confidence that was on full display. Once withdrawn, guarded and at times defensive in his interactions with the media, he was at ease, forthright and engaging. He seemed healthier. Lighter.
One of the changes he made over the past year was ditching social media, joining a growing number of athletes who are deleting apps such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to eliminate distractions and improve their mental health. In March, renowned former Arsenal soccer player Thierry Henry announced he will no longer be using social media until the platforms do more to tackle racism and bullying. New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso revealed he got rid of social media in February, noting he wants to "live in real life." And then-Kentucky Wildcats basketball forward Isaiah Jackson said in December he and "a lot of guys on the team" temporarily deleted their social media accounts because of severe fan reaction to their 1-6 start.
Some of the reasons Dillard, 25, gave for the move were relatable: He'd open his phone and start browsing through videos and whatnot, and the next thing he knew an hour had flown by and he had nothing productive to show for it. He wanted to block out the "general negativity in the world" that social media can bring. He learned of the dangers and behavior manipulation associated with social media, brought to the fore by documentaries such as "The Social Dilemma" on Netflix.
Jeff Stoutland speaks on our offensive line's depth and experience on the latest Eagles 360, presented by @Xfinity.#FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/EoWCMMHZB9— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) June 10, 2021
But one element was more unique to his profession. The public now has unprecedented access to pro athletes. Fans are able to send their praise, and vitriol, directly to a player's feed. Criticism en masse is a scroll away.
It was clear from early on Dillard was scrolling. "Most of 'em roast my hairline because I have my widow's peak. Little do they know, I want that there," Dillard said of the fans on social media following his first day of rookie minicamp in 2019.
"They all think I'm oblivious, but I like it. They all like to joke around. They're all very passionate, happy for me to be here overall. ... It's really fun to be a part of this culture."
The judgment didn't stop there that season, however. He was dinged for getting emotional on the field following a training camp scrap with defensive end Derek Barnett. He was bashed for yielding a blindside sack during a preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars that left quarterback Cody Kessler concussed. (The sack, coaches later said, was not on Dillard). He came under fire for his play over his four starts, particularly against the Seattle Seahawks after he was abruptly moved from left to right tackle that week, struggled and was benched at the half.
Dillard was 23 at the time.
"In terms of social media and stuff that's directly aimed at me ... I never realized that's kind of how it is once you get to [this] level. Just whatever sort of negativity gets pointed at you, it was kind of a shock for me," Dillard said. "But as the years went on, I kind of learned how it goes, and certain things, you can't feed into it. You can't feed the negativity or else it'll just keep growing and growing and weigh on you."
Social media and the expectancy theory
Ben Newman is the mental conditioning coach for the Alabama and Kansas State football teams and works one-on-one with more than 25 players in the NFL.
Part of his job is to provide athletes with the tools to mitigate distractions, including those brought on by social media.
"Certainly there are games where people become impacted," Newman said. "There's one player that I can think of right now, where as a result of social media getting in his head, there was a string of games where he was actually listening to the noise of the fans at the game. So it went from reading it on his screen to actually actively listening when he was at the game. And then finally, once there was the awareness and the acknowledgment, we had a conversation with it, he realized what it was doing and then shut it down.
"There's a psychology principle called expectancy theory, that what you focus on expands, so if they don't do anything to replace the negativity, all they're going to focus on is the negative. ... They'll almost be inclined to actually search their own name on Twitter. 'Can I find more? What are people saying?' When the reality is, we have to teach the athletes to not even be inclined to do that. Just stay focused on what you can control."
That's not a discipline easily learned, especially when you're young and the critics are in full throat. Such was the case for Eagles wide receiver Jalen Reagor, the No. 21 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. He was hampered by injuries as a rookie and, like Dillard, did not match the lofty expectations of a first-round pick.
Reagor was also the victim of circumstance. The Eagles chose him over LSU's Justin Jefferson, who was selected by the Minnesota Vikings with the very next pick and went on to tear up the league to the tune of 88 catches, 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns in 16 games. Reagor had 31 catches for 396 yards and a score over 11 games. Comparisons between the two were relentless, as was the critiquing of Reagor's game.
"What everyone does is, they go directly to social media and voice their opinion, so now [Eagles quarterback] Jalen Hurts' family is seeing it on social media, Jalen Reagor's family is seeing it on social media, Andre Dillard's family is seeing it on social media and now ... they have to answer questions by the media that was generated from Joe Blow on social media," said Jason Avant, the former Eagles wide receiver who served as an assistant receivers coach in 2020.
"So yes, I saw it last year: Social media affected Jalen Reagor, Dillard, a bunch of different people. Because social media tries to steal the narrative of the expectation; the expectation is no longer on the team's schedule, it's on whoever is coming up with the big-eye talent assessment. Jalen Reagor didn't have a chance to please Philadelphia because of the firestorm that is on social media about Justin Jefferson and all those things."
Added Eagles receivers coach Aaron Moorehead: "[If] you start listening to everything, whether it's good or bad, it can affect you. And that's not just Jalen [Reagor], that's every young player. They want to see their name on social media and they kind of get off on that. We all have egos, right? ... But in reality, you do your job to the best of your ability and it all takes care of itself."
Moorehead said Reagor is being "very diligent" about listening to the voices in the building and within his family structure in an attempt to block out the noise.
Everybody's distractions look different
The impact of social media certainly has the attention of the NFL Players Association.
The NFLPA has recently made it a point to have at least one session focusing on social media at all of its major events, from the annual board of player representatives meeting to the Collegiate Bowl to the Rookie Premiere, focusing on the good (how to leverage and monetize the players' brand and platform) and bad (how to silence the noise, ignore the trolls and stay focused on the job).
The point was raised at the virtual Rookie Premiere last month that the union's efforts to protect the health and safety of its members aren't limited to the field or the locker room, they now stretch to social media.
A panel was put together for that event in which former wide receiver Brandon Marshall served as moderator and Brittany O'Hagan (head of athlete/sports talent partnerships at Twitter), Dev Sethi (head of sports at Instagram) and Horace Flournoy (SwayBrand founder) were panelists.
Speaking on the benefits of social media for athletes, Marshall got the players' attention by telling them he is projected to make $250,000 a month on social media by the end of the year, according to a source who attended the event. Clearly, there can be a benefit to logging on from a dollars and cents standpoint, as well for branding purposes and to champion causes athletes are passionate about.
For some players, the benefits go even further.
"There are athletes who social media actually fuels them, right? They actually enjoy the engagement," Newman said. "And those players who understand they're fueled by that, I think social media is not a bad thing. But the players who clearly understand, when I read something negative, that impacts how I show up to the facility, those individuals need to set some barriers or parameters."
One practice for athletes is to shut down social media once the season starts. Others will go dark in the days immediately before and after a game. Newman notes it's typically wise for a player who didn't play well to avoid social media afterward, as his name might be trending for all the wrong reasons.
Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said this week there's "definitely" a battle between Dillard and Mailata for the left tackle spot heading into training camp. Mailata has the benefit of starting 10 games last season, but in Dillard, Stoutland sees a player who is now "hungrier" and "more serious."
"I really do like what he's done in the offseason," Stoutland said.
Competition at his position or not, for Dillard, staying off social media was the answer. He said it feels like he's leading a simpler life now. He gets up, goes to work, studies, reads and relaxes. He gets his news, but "not once do I flip open my phone and just read stuff," Dillard said, "and it's helped me a lot, I think."
"You're willing to do so many things to become a better football player, right -- what you put in your body, how you work out," Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. "The sacrifices that you give to be a good football player are almost endless. So if a distraction to you is social media, and you feel like you've got to give that up, you're doing all these other sacrifices, why not make it that as well?
"Andre is aware of what his potential distractions are. That's the first step, being aware of what is going to stop you from getting better every single day. So I heard about that and his comment there, and I was really excited for him that he's figured out what his distraction is."