Inside Twitter, sports' digital locker room

Peyton Manning, Lionel Messi, Tom Brady and MJ are on Twitter's most-wanted list. Josue Evilla for ESPN

Editor's note: This is the extended version of a story that appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 4 Perfect Issue. Subscribe today!

It’s not every day an athlete can tell the NFL off, not get fined and become an overnight social-media success story. Then again, not every athlete is T.J. Lang.

It was back in Week 3 of the NFL season, when the Seattle Seahawks beat the Packers on a controversial Hail Mary in the final play of the game. The winning score was ruled a touchdown by the replacement referees, ending the game and fittingly also ending replacement referees. It’s been dubbed the “Fail Mary” and the “Inaccurate Reception.”

Shortly after the game, Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang blasted how he really felt via Twitter: “F*** it NFL. Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs.”

Within 36 hours, the two sentences garnered 92,314 retweets, skyrocketing to the most popular RT in sports all year. @TJLang70's followers multiplied from 20,000 to more than 120,000. The moment proved that when it comes to Twitter, fans want it raw and real.

Lang, who protects Aaron Rodgers for a living, also became protective of his RT prowess. So when President Barack Obama, a known Chicago Bears fan, received more than 800,000 RTs on election night for a photo of him hugging Michelle Obama, with the caption, “Four more years,” Lang tweeted, “Congrats to Mr. President @barackobama,” followed by “But did you really have to shatter my RT record? Back to the drawing board.” (Although, Lang didn’t hold an official record.)

Twitter has become a kind of digital locker room for athletes, owners, coaches, broadcasters, journalists and fans all over the world. It’s a locker room with no real parameters, open 24/7 and extending far beyond the walls of stadiums. It has changed the way athletes voice their thoughts and how fans interact with them. And this is just the beginning.

As a business, Twitter just began letting media into its San Francisco headquarters, and we were one of the first to visit the high-security, high-data-gathering offices (as well as the equally impressive all-you-can-eat-for-free cafeteria). We sat down with the Twitter team to discuss what’s next for the blue birds and VITs (very important tweeters).

Omid Ashtari is the head of sports and entertainment at Twitter (yes, that’s his real title). Ashtari meets with athletes, leagues and clubhouses, acting as a liaison between networks, teams, agents, athletes and Twitter.

With such a big job, it seems appropriate that his location via his Twitter profile is “in the air.” If you’ve ever wondered who gives out the infamous little blue check mark to verified accounts, you’ve found him. That’s another one of Ashtari’s duties.

That blue verified check is more important than you might think. It’s the difference between getting a real Derek Jeter autograph and a worthless ink mark. You’d be surprised how many times people have tried to dupe Twitter into thinking they were the actual athlete. During my visit to HQ they just cleared a faux Hank Aaron (the real Hammerin’ Hank is not on Twitter).

Ashtari says that many athletes joined Twitter this year, including soccer great Pelé (@Pele), legendary German footballer Franz Beckenbauer (@beckenbauer), Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls (@drose), Josh Hamilton of the Los Angeles Angels (@thejoshhamilton) and two-sport legend Bo Jackson (@BoJackson) -- whom Ashtari lists as a huge get.

While Twitter boasts many top athletes who have accounts, from Drew Brees (@drewbrees) to Shaquille O’Neal (@shaq), there are still plenty who do not, such as Michael Jordan and Lionel Messi. Ashtari has his wish list of those he’d like to join Twitter, and the man at the top of his list also topped the list of many NFL teams this summer.

“Peyton Manning is so funny in real life and if he got on the platform it’d be entertaining,” he says. He adds that he’d like to see more coaches on Twitter, because they act as role models.

But even without some of the greats on the platform, the traction is undeniable. Twitter now boasts more than 60 percent of the NFL’s players and 90 percent NBA penetration.

Last year, UFC President Dana White (@danawhite), who currently has more than 2 million followers, announced fighters would receive bonuses for adding Twitter followers and writing creative tweets. In college football, teams such as University of Central Florida paint the hashtag on the field. Lacrosse teams have even swapped out last names for hashtags during notable games.

But what’s next for athletes on Twitter? For one thing, going beyond 140 characters is key. Tony Hawk (@tonyhawk) did this by hiding skate decks across the country and dropping clues on Twitter as to where they were.

Shaq has used Twitter to hand out tickets, both by rewarding followers who have the best tweet and actually sharing his location via Twitter to play a real-life game of “Shaq tag”, handing tickets to the person who finds him.

And Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips (@DatDudeBP) shocked a 14-year-old by actually accepting his Twitter invitation and showing up to his Little League game. If only Twitter existed back in ’94, I totally would have invited Thurman Thomas to our girls’ powder-puff football game.

With so much Twitter buzz, you have to wonder what moments stand out at a place like Twitter HQ. For Ashtari, a particularly raw moment involved NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski tweeting a picture from his car during a red flag, which resulted in a $25,000 fine.

While Twitter has changed the way we watch sports, Ashtari believes it has potential to do even more. He envisions networks using Twitter as a voting or polling mechanism in the future. Imagine chiming in on who you’d like to see interviewed at halftime, or voting for who should start in the All-Star game. For Ashtari, the possibilities are endless.

There’s no debating that, in an instant, Twitter can change the way we view athletes. Just ask T.J. Lang. Better yet, tweet him.