Athletes see ups, downs of social media

DALLAS -- This whole mess started with a cell phone and a couple of bruised egos, and spiraled into a statewide panic. Forget 140 characters or less. This one began with two characters, with the bluster and force of a weeklong hurricane, and ended with a smiley face.

There are some days when social media can spoil a man's peace. Rob Demovsky has been covering the Packers for the Green Bay Press Gazette for 14 years, and he's written about Brett Favre waffling and a community living and dying over its football team. He was settling into his seat on what was supposed to be a quiet Tuesday -- well, as quiet as it gets when the home team has just made it to the Super Bowl -- and had plans that night to spend quality time with the wife and kids.

Then Nick Barnett and Jermichael Finley fired off a couple of tweets about a team photo, and the Internet might as well have exploded. Demovsky wasn't going anywhere.

"Here's what bothers me about [Twitter]," he said. "People tweet first and think later. I've seen more people apologize for the things they've tweeted. And the other thing is that it's limited to 140 characters. I always say we're dumbing down America, 140 characters at a time."

But social media is here to stay, and it's all over the news. In Egypt, Facebook and other forms of social media are being used by people on all sides of that nation's crisis to spread information and show solidarity. Back here in the U.S., Twitter has been responsible for three of the biggest stories in the NFL postseason.

As with any technology, there are some people who aren't sure what to make of it yet, especially those older than 30. From Jay Cutler's knee to the spat between Antonio Cromartie and Matt Hasselbeck to the revenge of the injured reserves, Twitter appears to be a massive headache for NFL coaches, execs and PR types. But it's also a resource for athletes who want their unfiltered thoughts disseminated to the masses.

And it's brought fans as close to athletes as they've been in decades.

"I think Twitter provides an authenticity and an immediacy that you never really used to have," said David Katz, founder and CEO of sportsfanlive.com. "It used to be that these athletes were probably sitting at home, probably screaming at the television exactly what you see them tweeting today.

"So instead of screaming, they're tweeting. What was once a private conversation is published to the masses."

So they took it to the people last week, opened up and shared their innermost thoughts, because Barnett and Finley were hurt that the Packers were taking their team picture before the injured guys arrived in Dallas. After some back-and-forth, a thousand news reports and at least one meeting, coach Mike McCarthy decided to change the date to Friday. It was much ado about nothing, the old-school coach said. He added that he has no time for things like Twitter. End of story.

But is it ever over when scandal is just a couple of smart-phone taps away? This one, today at least, appears to have subsided. Demovsky sat at his laptop Friday, which is always signed on to Twitter these days because it has to be. A tweet popped up from JermichaelF88.

"Heading to the Team Photo!" it read. "Smile big! LMAO."

Said in the heat of battle?

hey Matt if u have something to then say it be a man about it. Don't erase it. I will smash ur face in. -- Jets defensive back Antonio Cromartie, responding to a tweet from Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck

Back in the old days, you had filters. You played 60 minutes of football, you boiled over with anger, frustration, pain and pride, but then you went into the locker room and had a cooling-off period of at least 10 minutes before the media traipsed in with cameras and notepads.

There are nasty things said in the heat of battle, things a football player wishes he could take back. Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac has had a few of those moments. But they were face to face, with just one or two people listening, not 2 million.

"The players need to understand," Trgovac said, "that when you send an electronic message like that, bam! The whole world has it. And you can't pull it back. So you'd better make dang sure that what you're saying is what you want out there."

Hasselbeck was hit with a case of Twitter remorse in late January. He responded to a Cromartie rant about the NFL labor dispute with a tweet that said, "Somebody ask Cromartie if he knows what CBA stands for." He later deleted the tweet, then brushed it off by saying he was in a bad mood when he woke up.

But their tiff filled several days of news holes and obviously left Cromartie miffed.

At least one social media expert speculated that the recent dustups might be related to sheer boredom. The football season is almost over, and most of the players are sitting at home, competitive juices still flowing.

Twitter, it seems, appeals to skill players and outgoing personalities. The phenomenon started, Katz says, when celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher and Shaquille O'Neal started tweeting a couple of years ago.

"All of a sudden, mainstream people started taking notice," Katz said. "And then there were the events in Iran and other places around the world where it became a distribution outlet for news and info around those types of events. And that's really where this stuff caught fire."

Lance Armstrong and Pete Carroll were sports' version of Twitter pioneers. Carroll opened a Twitter account in January 2009. And soon, the minions logged on to read which airport Carroll was buzzing through and what song was playing on his iPod.

Last spring, Carroll playfully tweeted clues about whom the Seahawks would draft by posting a list of 13 songs, including "Smooth Criminal" by Michael Jackson and "Back Door Man" by The Doors.

Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley says he opened his account with noble intentions. He wanted to give his fans an opportunity to become closer to him. He sends happy birthday tweets to some of them and gave away two Super Bowl tickets to a lucky follower via a Twitter contest.

Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews also uses Twitter to connect with his followers, more than 100,000 strong. When he arrived in Dallas this week, he asked them to recommend restaurants. Multimillion-dollar contracts and isolated lifestyles might have distanced athletes from their fans years ago, but Matthews and Woodley see Twitter as a way for fans to see them as likeable guys. As real people.

"Sometimes, a fan might read something in the paper and say, 'LaMarr, why'd you say that?'" Woodley said. "You can finally speak to them. That's the biggest thing, communicating with your fans and having fun with them."

Turned off by Twitter

BEARS fans I am so SORRY, I have to be crawling and cant get up to come off field, Josh Freeman would not come out, MEDS ARE AVAILABLE. -- Former Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks on Jay Cutler

Isaac Redman doesn't tweet much anymore. He hates updating it all the time and publicizing to the world what he's doing. There's no privacy in the world anymore. Once an athlete steps out of his living room, he can be photographed and videotaped and uploaded on Facebook, and Redman isn't too keen on that.

The Steelers running back is young, in his mid-20s, but he's already getting turned off by Twitter. He doesn't like the way things get blown out of proportion. He doesn't like the public skewerings that have taken place recently.

Redman gets passionate when the subject of Cutler comes up. How could his football brethren gang up on a guy like that?

"I expect that from people from the outside," Redman said. "From people outside the NFL. But for actual players to comment on that, it makes no sense to me and it was kind of disrespectful."

Redman got on Twitter because many of his teammates were doing it. Now he hates all the drama it produces.

But Roy Peter Clark wonders whether Twitter, coupled with the macho world of football, eventually will give way to something far more dangerous. The senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school dedicated to teaching journalists, recently wrote that athletes exist in a "shame" culture, in which being embarrassed is worse than losing.

"What really interested me most about the story about Jay Cutler is how Twitter provided a kind of Pandora's box," he said, "where you opened the top and all kinds of nasty stuff started coming out. I think that's new. I think that's very interesting. And I do think there is some danger attached to it.

"It is the danger of giving the athlete even more incentive not to come off the field no matter what the nature of the injury is."

Cautionary tales

Before I delete this page just wanted to say I was never trying to be a distration... I am packer have been one for 8 going on 9 years. -- Packers linebacker Nick Barnett on Jan. 29

Nick Barnett has tweeted in haste before. In 2009, after fans blasted him for celebrating a tackle just after he missed another key one, he grabbed his phone and flailed away at the keys. "KISS MY ASS," he wrote.

He later apologized for it and said he was taking a break from Twitter. He said it made him let his guard down, made him feel as if he was talking to friends. He had fewer than 20,000 followers at the time. Now Barnett has more than 388,000 and millions more watching.

Barnett quit Twitter last week, but the breakup lasted only a few days. He was back on again Wednesday, thanking his fans for the kind words during a difficult time.

Of the 15 or 20 Packers who are on Twitter, Barnett is one of the most prolific, Demovsky says.

He's an emotional guy who plays with passion. He is injured and has a lot of time on his hands.

And soon, hundreds of others might be in Barnett's spot, all jacked up with nowhere to go. A labor lockout looms in the NFL, and if it stretches long into the spring, some athletes will no doubt take their frustrations out on Twitter.

Will it speed up the negotiating process? Will it widen the gap? The world can change in a few months. Twitter is proof of that.

"A lot of these younger players are realizing it's the future for them," Katz said. "But the one cautionary tale is that having Twitter in your pocket is the equivalent of having a loaded weapon in your pocket at all times.

"To me, it's reality television for a sports fan. You just sit there and watch what unfolds."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.