The good and bad of Twitter and college athletes

9:54 PM, Jan 10, 2013   |    comments
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(USA Today)-- A tweet is just a tweet until it's newsworthy, Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel learned this week. Sending out a photo of yourself partying at a club or with a wad of cash at a casino might seem like no big deal, because it's technically legal.

But when you're 20 years old, the face of college football and broadcasting it to 250,000 people, it creates headlines.

"It's tough knowing that everything you do is watched pretty closely because I'm doing the same stuff I've always done," Manziel said Sunday. "It's just now people actually care what I do.

"It's hard to watch some of the stuff that people say to you when you take a picture or you do some stuff or you're at these games or whatever. It's tough to sit back, and you can't really defend yourself."

Some may argue that Manziel brought the criticism upon himself by voluntarily posting the photos. But he's not the only student-athlete hearing the chirps of negativity - whether it's related to casinos, something they've said or even a poor performance in a game. And they keep hearing about it, over and over again, thanks to Twitter and the kind of power anonymity and distance give to fans in the social media landscape.

Kentucky men's basketball players learned that lesson the hard way last month. They knew they'd lost two games in a row, and they were certainly aware that they'd fallen out of the top 25 polls. But college basketball fans kept hounding them about it.

All the negativity prompted freshman Willie Cauley-Stein to delete his Twitter account entirely.

"It happens, I guess, but I don't want to look at it no more," Cauley-Stein said after Kentucky lost to Baylor in early December. "Nothing good comes out of it, really, if you really think about it. You can't say what you want to say on it anyways, because it's all monitored, so you might as well not even have it."

Though he has since reactivated his account, the way Cauley-Stein reacted to criticism on Twitter isn't unusual, according to research published this winter in the International Journal of Sport Communication.

Assistant professors Blair Browning of Baylor and Jimmy Sanderson of Clemson found that student-athletes dealt with critical tweets in one or more of the following ways: 1) Ignoring it; 2) Using it as motivation; 3) Blocking users sending nasty tweets; or 4) Responding to critics or tweeting a general response about working harder (or "subtweeting" - not directly responding to a Twitter user but responding to the subject matter in general).

Since rejoining Twitter, Cauley-Stein has retweeted supportive messages from fans and answered others criticizing his missed free throws by explaining the pressure of playing in front of more than 20,000 fans.

"Of course, the (Kentucky players) were attentive to what (negative things) were being said," Browning said. "Though hate mail has always been around, it was a lot harder to get it to people in the past. Now with the immediacy of Twitter, it's immediately in front of their eyeballs."

Browning and Sanderson began their research after they observed that when high-profile athletes at their schools performed poorly, they still rushed to check Twitter and see what people were saying about them during and after games.

"It made me realize these guys are drawn to it, and it's become so ingrained in them to want to know what people say," Browning said. "These guys now have the avenue to look up directly what people are saying. What Twitter has opened up is what people saying to them.

"People spew some pretty vitriolic things to these players."

Browning interviewed 20 athletes (10 football players, five men's basketball players, three women's basketball players and two baseball players) to collect qualitative information for the study. Only two of the 20 kept their accounts private, which prevented them from the onslaught of positive and/or negative fan tweets.

The researchers said they weren't surprised with the coping techniques student-athletes told them they employed when dealing with criticism.

"What did surprise me was the fact that they said, 'It didn't bother me,' yet they acknowledged that they would still check Twitter to see what was being said about them," Sanderson said. "For many of them, they put on this front that it doesn't bother them but it clearly does.

"They are the conversation. People are actually talking about them, and as an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kid, you're very invested in what people are saying about you."

Not everyone. Georgetown forwards Otto Porter and Nate Lubick say they have Twitter accounts but aren't very active. Porter keeps his account private; he has 2,880 followers and only tweets a couple of times a week.

"A lot of kids are searching their names and get caught up in stuff, like whenever there's an article written about them," Lubick said. "I never, ever read any of that stuff. Did I at the beginning (of my career)? Yeah, absolutely. But as you go on, you learn to stop."

Besides avoiding game coverage and social media, is there a solution for student-athletes dealing with nasty, hyper-critical tweets after poor performances?

Browning and Sanderson say yes: Education. They believe major universities should teach student-athletes how to manage messages they send and receive before they start tweeting as college athletes. Most schools are not proactive, and they monitor social media use as it happens, according to the researchers.

"(Twitter) can be a really constructive, positive tool but we need to train and educate our student-athletes instead of putting all this money toward being watchdogs," Browning said. "Just train on the front-end, instead of being reactionary."

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