The Cleveland Browns' recent release of safety Jermaine Whitehead for threatening fans on Twitter following a poor performance on the field resonated with Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree, partly because of personal experience.
Dupree is part of the Ill-Advised Tweets Club.
Back in Week 2 of last season, Dupree checked his phone upon returning to the locker room after an ugly loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Dupree typically likes to view his messages and texts even before taking his pads off, to see what people are saying on Twitter about his play.
These dilemmas play out in NFL locker rooms each Sunday. When players return to their lockers, many grab their phones before anything else, scrolling out of curiosity, hopeful their performance popped off on social. New England Patriots special-teamer Justin Bethel has been a part of four NFL locker rooms, and each one has a healthy dose of guys checking their mentions as soon as the game wraps, he says.
The results can affect moods, and an angry-thumbed reply can threaten a career. Dupree didn't take things as far as Whitehead, whose replies were too aggressive to reprint here. But the urge to respond is tough to resist for many players because the tweets come at you, making it feel like a face-to-face interaction. In those moments, Dupree reminds himself to keep his Georgia country roots in check.
"They don't think we're people. They think we're players," Dupree said. "That's a hard reality to understand."
For some reason, Dupree says, the unflattering comments always find his eyes first. Dupree had seen many "F--- you" comments or racial slurs in the past (one "Go back to Georgia, n-----" comment stuck with him), but this particular time -- with a fan directly asking him "Where the f--- were you all game?" -- left him fed up. Dupree didn't have his best game, with two tackles and an offside penalty, but he thought the questioning was unnecessary.
He told some friends and teammates he was going to respond. They laughed it off.
"You don't think he's actually going to send it," said former Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats, who played with Dupree from 2015 to 2017 and is still on the group chat for linebackers. "The next morning, there were the DMs everywhere."
Dupree direct-messaged the fan, "I was at your girl house laid up, what u gone do." The response filtered through the news cycle, and though Dupree believes he has grown from the impulsive response, he's still unsettled by fans' ability to tweet whatever they want directly at him.
"Just because I play football doesn't mean there isn't something inside me that makes me want to whoop your ass," Dupree said. "They've got to know the difference in that. But we have to do a better job as players of being professional and knowing you can't respond to it."
Per NFL rules, coaches and players are restricted from posting on social media 90 minutes from kickoff until the conclusion of postgame interviews with media. Teams generally don't have their own rules and abide by NFL guidelines. One NFL source said the league generally hasn't had to fine players for breaking those guidelines in recent years, with Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson the last high-profile fining that this source could remember.
The players' union provides the occasional common-sense reminders: Don't tweet something you don't want your grandmother to see, let's act like a grown-up, etc.
That doesn't mean players can't scroll, which makes the league-mandated cooling-off period moot. The heat only rises.
"Sometimes it takes a little bit more [time], depending on the emotions of the game," said Browns coach Freddie Kitchens, who made the decision to release Whitehead. "It's difficult as competitors -- you want to do good, you want to win. It doesn't always work out in your favor, but you still have to approach every situation of the game the same. You have to find the positives and try to go from there and build on that."
Sounds easy enough. But the avalanche of mean tweets can weigh a player down.
Whitehead, whom ESPN made several unsuccessful attempts to interview, was believed to have made the threats from the team plane, well after the cooling-down period, which other players say is no surprise.
Upon first scroll from the locker, you might not see the most explosive content. The second wave hurts the most, Moats says.
"After the game, you're hopping on social media because you might be thinking, 'That play I made, did they get that on the Gram?'" Moats said. "You know so many people are tuning in, and as soon as I get on this field, millions were watching me. Was I killing it out there or did I suck? But sometimes you think you played well and Twitter tells you far differently. Those comments can stick with you for days. We take pride in our work."
There were many times Moats, who played eight years in the league, wanted to respond fiercely but remembered his wife's advice to kill 'em with kindness, and protect the brand.
But he did get the chance to politely respond in person one time. At a Steelers public outing, he responded to a fan who had made politically incorrect comments about his 2015 face mask penalty of Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel.
"I knew the face from his Twitter handle, so I said, 'You're the guy who said that,'" recounts Moats, who always texts his wife that he's healthy after every game before diving into the comments. "He instantly started backpedaling. I just said, 'Don't disrespect me like that, you don't know me.' ... [The fans] feel justified saying whatever because we make good money and play a sport."
Players can view these comments at halftime too, but Moats says only one Steelers player actually did that: Antonio Brown. Halftime is typically for bathroom breaks and in-game adjustments.
Moats remembers Pittsburgh linebackers having to cheer up a former teammate who was feeling down over a comment about his play. Arizona Cardinals right tackle Marcus Gilbert told ESPN in the spring that he thought social media criticism was affecting his demeanor away from the field. The comments made him feel he was letting the team down while injured, and that gave him a constant feeling of disappointment.
The postgame Twitter scroll is especially challenging for players who commit bad late-game mistakes. Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels lost a fumble in the fourth quarter of a Week 9 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts. The Steelers won and Samuels caught 13 passes, but after the game he was expecting some blowback from fans.
The first thing he does after the game: hit the home button on his iPhone and let the notifications pour over him. He saw about three negative comments, but they weren't memorable enough to remember a week later. Heartache averted.
"You get all these messages, all these notifications, and you're just anxious to see what people are saying," Samuels said. "I'm not really sure why. It doesn't really affect me and I don't respond anyway. It's just something you do."
Others are simply looking for a "Come on, really" moment. Bethel gets a laugh whenever someone says he should be cut, because he knows they don't know the game the way he does. Eight years later, he's still in the NFL.
"For me, whatever they say, it's not going to affect the way I play or what I'm going to do," Bethel said. "Even if they are saying something outrageous or are attacking you, first off, I'm never going to meet you, it's not affecting what I'm going to do. I'll still wake up the next morning, I'll still have my job."
Keeping that job means staying unplugged altogether, at least for some.
Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva views omnipresent internet connectivity as unhealthy, which is why he goes straight to the showers after the pads are off and coach Mike Tomlin has addressed the team.
Browns linebacker Joe Schobert doesn't trust himself. He knows negative comments are a personal weakness, so he stays off social media all season, using his phone after the game only for texting his wife or parents.
Schobert was surprised by the comments from Whitehead, who was a great teammate. But he also understands how a man can reach a breaking point.
"When I read stupid stuff about [myself], I get real angry and want to say stupid stuff back," Schobert said. "That's why it's best for me to stay away."