Social Media a Fact of Life in Pro Sports

Walk into the Jaguars locker room during the “media availability” time on any given day and there will be a smattering of players arrayed in front of their lockers in various positions of repose with one thing in common: They’re all on their phones. Not talking on their phones, not texting, but looking at their phones, perusing social media.

“Media availability” happens four times a week for about an hour in the middle of the day, between meetings and around lunch. So it might be the only time the players have to check their phones.

While social media has given fans perceived access to their sports heroes, it’s also given players some ownership over a part of their public image and branding.

“My social media is about who I am not about what I have,” said Defensive Lineman Malik Jackson. “I’m fashion forward, so I post some fashion, some things about the team and some stuff about my family. That’s about it. Instagram is visual and written, that’s why I’m on it.”
We used to joke in the sports department about what goes happens on social media. “I woke up this morning thinking maybe Twitter would be nice today,” my colleague Matt used to say. “But then I got on it and.. . . Nope!”
Since becoming the NBA commissioner in 2014, Adam Silver has encouraged the use of social media league wide. So much so that it’s become an indelible part of the league’s culture.

“Those guys in the NBA, they’ve got a lot of time on their hands,” Jaguars Defensive Lineman Abry Jones said regarding what seems like the constant stream of tweets and post coming from NBA players. “Two hours here, two more there. We don’t have that.”

In 2018, the NBA has already been tweeted about more than any other sports league. The league’s official Twitter account has 27 million followers, 3 million more than the NFL’s. On Instagram, the NBA has 31 million followers, more than the NFL, MLB and the NHL combined. In the NBA, there are 33 players with at least 2 million followers on Instagram. In the NFL, there are nine.

But NFL teams are using social media platforms to expand their reach. The Green Bay Packers have more Twitter followers than the entire population of the Green Bay metropolitan area.

Jalen Ramsey is the most active and followed player on the Jaguars roster. Ramsey has nearly a million social media followers, three-quarters of those on Instagram. He’s created some controversy and has experienced plenty of blowback on social media. So much so that he recently tweeted, “I’m gone from here, y’all gone miss me. I ain’t even trippin lol.”

When asked who that was directed at, Ramsey said, ““Whomever. You have something to say, you have some negativity, I guess the fake fans, the fake … Whoever. Whoever.”

While the Lakers’ LeBron James has 44.5 million followers on Instagram, more than the top 12 NFL players on that platform combined, Sixers Guard J.J. Reddick has none. He deleted all of his accounts recently. He believes he was an addict and it was taking away from his real life.

“It’s a dark place,” he told Bleacher Report. “It’s not a healthy place. It’s not real. It’s not a healthy place for ego. It’s just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It’s scary, man.”

“I encourage players to use social to interact with fans and the community,” said Tad Dickman, the Jaguars Director of Public Relations. “If they’re looking for a restaurant, I’d rather them ask fans on Twitter than just go to Yelp looking for a place to eat.”

At the beginning of the season, Dickman, a 29-year old a social media participant himself, conducts a seminar on social media use, gives the players a handbook outlining the do’s and don’ts and how players can use it to their benefit. While the NFL has a broad social media policy, most of the specifics are set team by team.

No game footage can be used and live streaming is prohibited according to NFL policy. For the Jaguars the rules are pretty basic: No pictures or videos that could harm the team. No pictures from the training room or the locker room.

“Just like missing a meeting or being late, violating the rules could involve discipline,” Dickman responded without elaborating when asked if the players could find themselves in trouble posting on social media.

Like any organization with young employees, the Jaguars warn their players about putting out too much information.

“I don’t want people all up in my business,” Jones said, explaining why he limits his social media use to Instagram and even there, not much. “I like to stay in touch with some friends.”

Most Jaguars players have limited their social media to the Instagram platform. And as Jackson alluded to, it seems that everybody on there owns everything and has a fabulous life going on.

“It’s all fake,” fullback Tommy Bohanon, an Instagram participant said with a laugh. “I like to keep up with some friends. I don’t post much, but I scan through it to see what’s going on.”

Bohanon said the negativity on his accounts isn’t an issue. “I don’t care what anybody outside this (locker) room says. They don’t know what’s going on anyway.”

“I’m just on Instagram, I got rid of the rest,” Offensive Lineman Josh Wells explained.

Any trolls?

“Me, no, not me. But I know guys on the team who really get it all over social (media).”

Which is why some players have self-imposed rules.

Famously, James halted his social media posts during the 2015 NBA Playoffs calling it, “Zero Dark Thirty-23” mode.
“No phones, no social media, I don’t have anything,” James said at the time. “There’s too much nonsense out there. Not during this time. This is when I lock in right now, and I don’t need nothing creeping into my mind that don’t need to be there.”
Golden State’s Steph Curry recently stopped his usual ritual of looking at social media at halftime.

“When everybody is watching your game every night, if you let one ounce of negativity or one terrible comment creep in, especially right before a game or at halftime or something, it’s probably not the best bet,” Curry told the Mercury News.
I asked Head Coach Doug Marrone if he’d ever been on social media, he laughed as he headed to practice.
“Never. No Twitter, no Instagram, no Facebook, nothing. When I’m gone from here nobody will know how to find me!”
Probably a generational thing, but for sure, social media is a fact of life sports teams will have to continue to deal with in the future.

Where’s The Line

How is it that so many people seem so intent on killing the goose that lays the golden egg? As a league, the NBA has survived drugs and violence, a strike and general stupidity. But the latest incident in Detroit gives the league a big black eye that won’t go away for a while. NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended Ron Artest for the remainder of the season and his Pacers teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal 30 and 25 games respectively for their role in Friday’s melee. All three went into the stands after fans and caused the biggest flap the league has seen since, well ever.

When Kermit Washington hit Rudy Tomjonovich in the face, that was between two players. It was indicative of the undercurrent in the league at the time. Not a place for the faint of heart. But this is completely different. Artest had become a flash point in the league with his ridiculous and childish behavior on the court and his laughable recent request for some personal time to promote his rap album. He became the poster child for everything that the league is that people can’t stand. Boorish behavior by outlandishly wealthy athletes isn’t anything new, but Artest was taking it to all new heights.

“I’m a little worn out coach; can I have a couple of days off to promote my upcoming rap album?”

When Pacers coach Rick Carlisle heard that, I’m sure his first reaction was that Artest was kidding. But when he realized he was serious, Carlisle reacted just like he should have. He benched Artest for two games. When Latrell Spreewell said he “couldn’t feed his family,” on the $7 million a year the Timberwolves were paying him, the reporters laughed; until they realized he was serious.

Where do these guys get these ideas?

That’s easy.

From junior high school, they’re pampered and coddled and told they’re the greatest in the world. And it continues as they get older. They surround themselves with people who tell them how great they are until they start to believe it. Nothing seems too outrageous to them. Even going into the stands to fight somebody who threw a cup of ice on them. The ground work had been laid for some sort of wild scene in the league involving Artest, but we thought it would be between Artest and another player, not some fans.

When Artest committed a hard (perhaps flagrant) foul against Ben Wallace, Wallace turned and shoved him, challenging him to some kind of fight. But Artest didn’t want any part of Wallace, and backed meekly off toward the scorers table. Who knows what was said over there, but whatever was going on lead to a cup of ice being thrown at Artest and the melee ensued.

Isn’t it ironic that Artest wanted no part of Wallace (who would have beaten him to a pulp) but was more than willing to attack some skinny guy five rows up? If two guys are playing in the park and one guy throws a cup of ice in another guy’s face, does that instantly lead to a big fight? And if so, when the guy who caught the face full of ice beats the other guy to the ground, what happens? He goes to jail is what happens, and that should be an option with Artest, O’Neal and Jackson and any other player who goes into the stands at any sporting contest.

Isn’t it ironic that Artest had his wits about him enough to back off from Wallace, but suddenly lost it when a fan was involved? Nobody has to draw the line for the players or the fans. The line is right there on the edge of the playing surface, no matter what sport is involved. Fans don’t belong in the game, and players don’t belong in the stands. The media promotes the notion that the fans are a big part of the game, that somehow they can have an effect on the outcome. But that’s from their seat in the stands. Players know the rules, and don’t try and pass off that “heat of the moment” argument.

No matter what the circumstances, if you’re life’s not threatened, stay out of the stands. All Artest had to do was point at the guy in the stands and security would have taken him away. But somewhere in his twisted thought process, Artest bought into his own thug fantasy. Maybe because he listens to rap music and recorded a rap album he fashioned himself as a tough guy. And maybe he is. But for now, he’s a tough guy without a job for the rest of the year and a reputation as a player who can’t be counted on as a teammate.

As the NBA teeters between sport and folly, Stern is trying to send a clear message. Hopefully the rest of the players are listening.