When Tweeting Athletes Turn Into League Liabilities

Twitter's a Great Promo Tool for Players -- if They Think Before They Type

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- While Twitter might be the second coming when it comes to social marketing for athletes, ill-considered tweets can be a disaster for the leagues and teams they play for. Just ask Kansas City Chiefs football star Larry Johnson, who used homophobic slurs on his personal Twitter account, tweeting himself into a two-week suspension from the team.

Twitter is "how athletes and celebrities win fans for life," said Dan Schawbel, personal branding expert and author of the book "Me 2.0." "Athletes can talk directly to fans, companies can talk directly to consumers, and the middleman is cut out. There's a huge opportunity to grow their fan base. They don't have to go through anybody to get their message out."

But that can also be the problem. San Diego Chargers football player Antonio Cromartie was fined $2,500 back in the preseason for tweeting about the awful food served at training camp. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $25,000 by the National Basketball Association for using his Twitter account to criticize the referees after a game last year. Texas Tech University football player Brandon Carter tweeted earlier this season that "this is not how I saw our season" and was suspended by head coach Mike Leach, who also banned players from using Twitter. And the NBA's Michael Beasley, of the Miami Heat, earlier this summer posted a picture on his Twitter account of himself and a new tattoo -- with a bag of marijuana clearly visible in the photo. He checked into rehab days later.

"We actually encourage tweeting; I mean, the commissioner is on Twitter," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said of Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has 26,000 followers. "That's what we communicated to our players in the offseason. When used wisely, it is a great way to get closer to our fans and effectively promote player initiatives."

Just one tweet
That appears to be the key phrase -- "when used wisely." Mr. Schawbel said that building a following is invaluable, saying, "A brand built online is transferrable. It doesn't disappear. If you have a million followers now, you're going to have a million if you change teams. It stays with you."

That said, it's smart to remember that tweets are being gobbled up by search engines as fast as they're posted. "The impact one tweet can have on your career is life-changing," he said.

It was for Mr. Johnson, who ripped his coach, Todd Haley, via his Twitter account. When one of Mr. Johnson's followers questioned how the player could be critical of his coach when Mr. Johnson himself is having a subpar season, Mr. Johnson fired back using homophobic slurs, including calling the follower a "Christopher Street boy" and criticizing his "fag pic."

When reporters tried to question Mr. Johnson about the tweets a day later, he again used a slur by telling the media to get their "faggot asses" out of the locker room. Mr. Johnson is suspended until Nov. 9.

"Twitter is public communication; it's essentially doing an interview," said Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University, who recommends media training by teams to protect both sides. "Most 23-year-olds, 26-year-olds, they don't understand that. But right now, teams and franchises need to be careful because Twitter is an uncontrolled idea."

"It's one thing to encourage people to use Twitter as a marketing tool, and that's terrific," said Rick Kelly, director-crisis communications for Triad Strategies. "But there has to be something done on the part of the team to make sure these players know that the same rules apply to Twitter that are there for postgame interviews, for instance. You wouldn't expect an individual to use a derogatory term in a TV or print interview, and Twitter is no different."

"I think all the social-media stuff is similar to when sports talk radio first launched [20 years ago] -- people didn't know what to make of it," said Joe Favorito, a sports public relations and branding consultant who was formerly the VP-media relations for basketball's New York Knicks. "This is just another evolutionary step in how sports marketing and branding grows. You're going to have bumps along the way. Some people are going to do it very well, and others aren't."

Those who do it well include NBA stars Shaquille O'Neal of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Dwight Howard of Orlando Magic, who have huge followings. Mr. O'Neal, who has 2.5 million followers, has been known to tweet hints about his location, and the first follower who finds him receives tickets to a game. Mr. Howard has reached out to fans, and actually paid to fly his 1 millionth follower to attend the season opener in Orlando last week.

In the NFL, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad OchoCinco has revamped his image through his Twitter account and subsequent community and charitable efforts. He appeared on "The Late Show with David Letterman" last week.

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