Twitter: a sporting obsession

Forget beer and gang-bangs – Twitter is now the number one pastime for athletes.

It seems professional sportsmen can’t get enough of the microblogging website. Even the unlikeliest of athletes are embracing Twitter, opining on everything from the status of a recent groin strain to America’s AAA credit rating downgrade. Overseas, NBA and NFL players exchange virtual high-fives, LOLs and Bible verses with each other, while Australian sports stars fall victim to sordid canine sex scandals and ignorant, homophobic rants. In short, athletes worldwide have taken to Twitter like an urbane hipster takes to an organic market or dimly lit laneway bar: i.e. with gusto.


It's hip to Tweet


According to a recent study, there are some 20,000 uber-famous celebrities, brands and sportspeople in the world on Twitter. And while that constitutes just 0.05% of global Twitter users, this cohort attracts 50% of the attention. Just as it has allowed many flagging celebrities – Ashton Kutcher is a prime example – to reinvent themselves and exude crucial Gen-Y appeal, Twitter has presented athletes with the same opportunity to construct their personal brand. Good or bad, it offers a valuable insight into an athlete’s personality and what makes them “tick”.

But with opportunity comes responsibility. It could be said that even before the proliferation of the smartphone, athletes were struggling to negotiate new technology. Mark Gasnier and Tiger Woods proved that you can get busted on voicemail. Sonny Bill Williams was captured on a camera enjoying an illicit public toilet tryst with ironwoman Candice Falzon. NFL legend Brett Favre sent some woman a picture of his manhood that spread over the internet faster than an EPL trade rumour. And Dwight Yorke and Mark “Bozza” Bosnich memorably videotaped a cavalier cross-dressing sex romp with four girls. Nothing wrong with that; however, Yorke later chucked the video out with his rubbish, only for it to be seized from his bin by a snoopy ‘Sun reader’ and beamed to the world. These are all examples of athletes underestimating the power of technology.


Favre, misjudged the power of new technology


Follow New England Patriots wide-receiver Chad “Ocho Cinco” Johnston on Twitter and expect to see something as mind-numbingly inconsequential as this drop into your feed:

#OCNN – Tune into Jersey Shore tonight n watch my boy @djpaulyd. He’s also gonna be in the @MikeTyson game update in 2 weeks #pow!!

However, Ocho should not be underestimated. The website has rated him the most influential sportsperson in the online world, ahead of LeBron James and Mike Tyson. But he broke with frivolity recently when he told followers he was reading a book by notorious ultra-conservative Glenn Beck.

Does anyone know if Glenn Beck has a twitter account? Starting on his new book BROKE. His views on political n economical issues are EPIC.

This catapulted Ocho from inoffensive self-promoter to politically charged personality. And these are the ones that are dangerous with mobile device in hand: athletes dying to express their broader opinions on society and politics, but burdened by the 140 character limit and a general lack of articulacy. In short, these guys are ticking tabloid time bombs.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall is another example. Like many civilians, Mendenhall passed comment on the over-exuberant celebrations that took place upon the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death. He tweeted:


What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side…

And later: 

We’ll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style.


Mendenhall, an astute political mind


Steelers’ officials were forced to refute Mendenhall’s comments. But as this blog  shows, Mendenhall has form. Incapable of tapering his burgeoning political mind, earlier in the year he compared the NFL to the slave trade, writing that the two “parallel each other.”

Samoan-born Gloucester centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu continued this racial theme, firing these bullets at the International Rugby Board earlier this year:

So IRB allow tours to and by Apartheid South Africa but look to ban Fiji from RWC! Pathetic racist f**king hypocrites! “Honaray (sic) whites.

Like any company dealing with a rogue employee, club executives have moved to clamp down on outspoken athletes by slapping zero-tolerance Twitter bans on their entire playing rosters. These blanket bans have, to date, mostly come in response to players revealing sensitive club information rather than inciting fan outrage with their political agendas.


The Leeds FC in happier days; today's players are banned from Twitter


Meanwhile, some of the more socially aware athletes  have imposed Twitter bans on themselves. Wests Tigers hooker Robbie Farah said he left because it was “becoming a major distraction.” Former England striker Kevin Davies has described it as “more hassle that it was worth.” The All Black playing group, too, has agreed to a blanket ban during the Rugby World Cup in a bid to avoid any possible off-field problems.

But given athletes are already subject to salary caps, diet commitments, strict workout regimes, water-tight schedules and media obligations, it’s no surprise that the majority sees Twitter as a chance to break free and express themselves. High-profile sportsmen, much like the townsfolk in Footloose, are craving individuality in a world where freedom and self-expression is frowned upon. Twitter, like a young Kevin Bacon, has sauntered into town, all slender-hipped and ready to dance. And now repressed athletes are tapping their touchphones to the beat of their own drum.


Twitter, like the Footloose protagonist, promotes self-expression


Funnily enough, with more and more athletes closing their accounts – both voluntarily and as a result of controversy – it might not be long before the tweeting athlete becomes extinct. Perhaps only then, once athletes resume communicating through clichés and PR-approved statements, will we look back fondly to an era in which Shane Warne could tweet to an expectant world that he’d “just had the best cheeseburger ever at McDonald’s.”

Let’s relish this while we can.

By Dave Edwards

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