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Social media is a double-edged sword in sports world

 

By Arash Markazi

 

The greatest moment in Larry Nance Jr.’s basketball career turned into a humiliating and gut-wrenching one before he was even done hugging friends and family during last month’s NBA draft.

Moments after the Los Angeles Lakers selected Nance with the 27th overall pick, a tweet he posted three years ago as a 19-year-old freshman at Wyoming resurfaced and was retweeted and favorited thousands of times.

The tweet read: “Gee I sure hope Kobe can keep his hands to himself in Denver this time. #rapist.” It was originally posted on May 1, 2012, before the Lakers traveled to Colorado for Game 3 of their first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets. It was a passing thought by a teenager that reared its head when Nance became Bryant’s teammate.

Nance deleted the tweet, but the damage was done — screen-grabbed and downloaded for everyone to see.

“I heard my named called with the 27th pick. It was about two minutes until I found out about that,” Nance said. “About 24 hours went past. I felt like I was going to throw up — sick to my stomach. I was just embarrassed in myself. I felt so bad about what I had said. I just wanted to apologize right away.”

Bryant accepted Nance’s apology the next day. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak learned about the tweet as he prepared to address reporters after the draft.

“It’s something that happened years ago, and in today’s world, things don’t go away, which really doesn’t make it any less offensive because it was said three, four years ago,” Kupchak said.

Would the Lakers have drafted Nance if they had known about the tweet? It’s difficult to say, but one source said the Lakers were considering “a handful of players” at that spot, and knowledge of Nance’s tweet might have made it easier to pick another one. Either way, the scouting reports teams compile on players are increasingly becoming much broader than a simple list of athletic traits and quick background check. How athletes conduct themselves on social media allows teams and schools a glimpse into the personality of the people they are trusting to represent them in the future.

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Larry Nance Jr. regretted posting a tweet critical of Kobe Bryant when the comment came to light after Nance was drafted by the Lakers. David Dow/Getty Images

 

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center released a report that found 92 percent of teens are online daily, while close to 90 percent use at least one social media platform. It’s a big reason almost every college program not only follows prospective student-athletes on the field of play but also on Twitter and Instagram to get a better idea about the personalities and characters of the players they are trying to recruit.

When Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt spoke to some of the nation’s top high school athletes at the annual Gatorade Athlete of the Year function last week in Los Angeles, he stressed the importance of being careful on social media.

“Read each tweet about 95 times before sending it,” he said in an interview with MaxPreps.com. “Look at every Instagram post about 95 times before you send it. A reputation takes years and years and years to build, and it takes one press of a button to ruin. So don’t let that happen to you. Just be very smart about it.”

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Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema recently said his staff pays close attention to how potential recruits handle themselves on social media.

Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema said he won’t recruit players who offend his sensibilities on social media. AP Photo/David Quinn

“We have a social media background screening that you’ve got to go through,” Bielema said at SEC media days last week. “And if you have a social media nickname or something on your Twitter account that makes me sick, I’m not going to recruit you. I’ve turned down players based on their Twitter handles. I’ve turned down players based on Twitter pictures. It’s just that’s how I choose to run our program.”

It might seem like a strong stance, but Bielema isn’t alone. Last year, Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand tweeted: “Dropped another prospect this AM due to his social media presence … Actually glad I got to see the ‘real’ person before we offered him.”

Three years ago, Yuri Wright was a four-star recruit and one of the top 100 prospects in the country. He was being recruited by Notre Dame, Georgia and Michigan, and many signs pointed to his committing to Michigan. One day before national signing day, however, Wright was expelled by his high school, Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, New Jersey, after several of his sexually graphic and racially charged tweets came to light. After the incident, Michigan and Notre Dame stopped recruiting Wright, who eventually signed with Colorado.

Wright’s case is a high-profile example of a recruit facing consequences for bad decisions on social media, but it’s not a unique situation. Rather, most players with similar issues don’t have a large enough following for inappropriate comments or pictures to make waves outside of the coaches who are monitoring them.

“I don’t know if it’s fair or not,” said Fieldhouse Media founder Kevin DeShazo, who has worked with more than 70 universities regarding social media. “These are high school kids, and they’re going to make mistakes. In my experience, in every school we’ve been to, there’s been at least one coach who has said they’ve dropped a kid based off of what they put online. If it’s extremely offensive, they’re gone immediately, but they’re usually looking for red flags, and if it’s a pattern or a one-time thing.”

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Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt advises young athletes to be extremely mindful of how they present themselves on social media. Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

 

Many college and professional teams offer some sort of training in social media. Companies such as Fieldhouse Media are routinely hired to speak to athletes about using social media intelligently. But DeShazo doesn’t just discuss social media with students. He also talks to coaches and administrators separately about dealing with athletes using social media.

“I don’t want to come in and say, ‘Don’t tweet this. Don’t post that. Don’t screw up. Don’t be an idiot. This is going to ruin your life,'” DeShazo said. “That would be a waste of an hour of their time, and they would walk away wondering what they’re supposed to do. So we talk to them about risks but [also] how to communicate effectively on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.”

For years, college programs have held annual sessions on how to deal with traditional media and interviews. Many schools have extended training to include best practices for social media.

“The reality is people are living a portion of their lives publicly by exposing themselves on social media,” said Karen North, a communications professor and director of digital social media at the University of Southern California. “What they do on social media is very visible. A lot of people think it’s unfair to do this, but there’s a certain legitimacy to checking that kind of activity among the people that will represent the face of a team.”

The number of coaches and teams who don’t allow players to use social media has decreased in recent years, DeShazo said, as coaches realize that many players will use them anyway. Further, social platforms give coaches another avenue to communicate with recruits. The NCAA regulates phone calls and text messages between coaches and recruits, but there’s no such limit on tweets.

In today’s sports world, avoiding social media can put coaches at risk of losing recruits.

“I think that can be used against schools, because it’s such a massive part of these kids’ lives,” DeShazo said. “Some studies will say they’re spending up to 3.8 hours per day on social media and online, and if you’re saying you don’t get to do that, you’re not really speaking their language. You have to be able to connect with them.”

Other schools are taking that philosophy a step further and selling their programs as places where players can establish themselves both on and off the field.

“Our media training has now shifted from just talking about properly dealing with the media to how best to establish your brand through social media,” said one athletic administrator of a major college program. “That’s really what it’s all about. We have recruits now coming in with that in mind now. These kids are looking to develop a brand and developing their identity through social media, and we want to help them. Showing them how to do interviews has shifted to showing them how to best use social media.”

Although most athletes being recruited today have used social media for years, many still don’t understand the potential repercussions of missteps. Every immature comment, inappropriate photo or forgettable moment can still be floating out there online — just waiting to be scrutinized.

“What I say when I talk to athletes — student and professional — is if you think it’s temporary, it’s permanent; and if you think it’s private, it’s public,” North said. “It doesn’t matter if you delete it.”

While social media have possible pitfalls, athletes can also use them as vehicles to control their message, build brands and directly engage with fans. North said she believes the rewards of building a powerful social media presence outweigh the risks, if athletes treat each tweet as if it were being shared with a group of reporters at a news conference.

“There’s no better way to reach your fans than social media,” North said. “If you want to think about what is the greatest strength of social media as far as a communication medium, it’s that we can all have what feels like a personal relationship with people that have some sort of celebrity. It’s the most amazing thing for audience-building and building a fan base. So the idea of coaches saying you can’t use social media is a little ridiculous in this day and age. The transition from rules against social media to social media training is a really important transition most organizations and schools are beginning to realize.”

 

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