Sports world needs to get realistic grip on Twitter

When I was blogging from an NFL team’s preseason training camp several years ago, another reporter stopped me as we walked to the practice fields:

“Gotta turn your cell phone off. It’s not allowed to be on out here.”

And placing it on silent or vibrate mode wasn’t good enough. My device had to be turned off completely. So I complied, sheepishly. I wasn’t there to write about formations, nickel packages or who was in the training room. The kinds of details that Pattonesque NFL coaches are convinced will ruin their entire seasons if divulged.

I wasn’t spying for Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Honest. I was there to write “scene” blog posts, talk to fans and spot the unusual (like a noted local sports personality watching the festivities in lime green Crocs).

I thought about that a lot yesterday when I read a Tweet from an NFL team’s Web site staffer who said he wasn’t allowed to post anything from an open practice session. Nothing at all. But that was just the start of what turned out to be a bizarre day for sports and Twitter.

A while later, word came down that San Diego Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie was fined $2,500 for a Tweet in which he complained about the food at training camp. Yes, loose Tweets sink ships. Their season is toast, and they haven’t played an exhibition game. Let’s bring in the Marines.

Here’s the explanation from Gen. Norv Turner, the Chargers coach:

“We’re trying to be open and give the fans a look at what we’re doing, but certainly we’re not going to go out of our way to give our opponents a competitive advantage or give them something that we feel should stay in our building. So that’s been our approach with any forms of media that we’re involved with.”

The Chargers aren’t alone in clamping down on Tweets from players and team officials, especially if they’re uncomplimentary about their employers. At least a dozen teams have banned Tweeting altogether during training camp. Even by journalists.

No wonder Steve Spurrier dubbed the professional ranks — where he spent two miserable seasons — the “No Fun League.” The league is working on a game-day Twitter policy to be lumped into an existing banishment of all forms of digital communications during games. Is the “No Twitter League” upon us?

Later in the day, the Bristol Behemoth, aka ESPN, issued a social media policy to employees with a tone that read like it was written in Pyongyang, especially the provision that Tweets from staff accounts be only about the company.

Naturally, some immediate reactions in the Web world were mockingingly incredulous and typically arid from the mainstream media.”Modules?” Those are space ships, not ways of linking social media postings. Why parrot this corporate-speak gobbledygook?

ESPN’s response to the criticism wasn’t as defensive as the initial memo, and I’m all for establishing standards for using social media and other forms of digital media. The sports cable giant’s clarification and rationale sounds reasonable enough. So why start out so bossy?

But was this really a bad day for Twitter? I don’t think so. Instead, this Twitter Tuesday revealed an insulated, “image-obsessed” sports culture led by paranoid coaches and executives who are accustomed to exerting ironclad control over their enterprises.

The sports world isn’t alone in trying to figure out how to best project itself in this social media environment. The corporate realm is struggling with this everywhere. But the initial reactions from the NFL and ESPN about Twitter illustrate entities that have been caught a little flat-footed, at the very least, by a technology that’s eluded their grasp.

Update: On Wednesday, Sports Business Daily conducted this Q and A with ESPN.com editor-in-chief Rob King:

“It’s an important opportunity to reiterate to folks that this technology is the equivalent of a live microphone. In that respect, it should be treated with some measure of awareness about how it represents those individuals who are forward-facing talent and how it represents how ESPN wants to connect with the audience. There’s a lot of education that goes along with it. Anyone who’s ever had a tweet re-tweeted to an audience knows that it can be presented in ways that you might never have understood or intended when you originally articulated those 140 characters.”

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