Twitterpated: New Media, Old Frenzies

“In da locker room, snuck to post my twitt. We’re playing the Celtics, tie ball game at da half. Coach wants more toughness. I gotta step up.”

— Charlie Villanueva

“kurt warner plays like a damn 80 year old! my brother just texted me during halftime pissed off”

— Marcus Fitzgerald, brother of Larry Fitzgerald

Anyone who’s been to a live sporting event knows that, in a very visceral way, the experience is defined by access. Our proximity to the action and the players often determines how memorable a game it might be, and how wildly we might retell its stories.

To achieve maximum access (and maximum story value), there is a series of concentric barriers that must be transgressed, each one bringing the field more sharply into focus and its participants nearer to hand: from the cheapest metal bleachers in the stadium’s upper deck, to the individualized plastic seats in the lower deck, the leather barstools provided to fans in the luxury suites, and down to the field and locker room where only the properly accredited are allowed to set foot, the entirety of a sports fan’s existence is mediated by a proximity to the players themselves. The simple rule is: the closer, the better.

Of course, access is never truly access. Standing on the sidelines or brushing past players in the locker room may be a rare experience, but individuals athletes remain generally an elusive lot. Though some may be more accommodating to meeting and greeting fans, how much insight into the players’ true thoughts and character gets revealed in such encounters? And yet, sports media places an insistent premium on just this sort of dialogue. The entire premise of the on-field interview is to reveal the thoughts of the players to those fans who aren’t close enough to ask for themselves.

The interview, in this way, offers the promise of access, but one that has been thoroughly thwarted by a preponderance of cliché. Rather than any meaningful commentary (if, indeed, the instinctual physicality of most athletes can be elaborated through interview questions like “Talk about that last shot”), athletes and coaches alike have learned to traffic in stock responses — “one game at a time” and its many variations — and have effectively stymied any genuine insight.

And so, what passes for access to players’ thoughts and personalities is little more than a series of scripted exchanges that are predictably consistent in their failure to reveal anything of note. Beyond the interviews, the same can be said for press conferences (where athletes read from the ubiquitous “prepared statement”), guest appearances (teleprompters), and advertisements (cue cards). There is, in fact, very little public candor amongst pro athletes, and perhaps for good reason; those that do freely express themselves are often castigated for putting themselves ahead of the team — a cardinal sin no matter what the sport. More often than not, they stick to talking points and regurgitate meaningless platitudes in ways that would do a politician proud.

But this phenomenon may be coming to an end. Enter Twitter. The latest craze in mini-blogging has been embraced by a variety of pro athletes to voice their opinions on everything from coaching advice to domestic violence. Twitter, it seems, acts as a kind of replacement intermediary. Rather than having a microphone shoved in their face by a stranger, Twitter allows athletes to talk when they feel like talking, and to a community of named subscribers, rather than to the faceless lens of TV-land.

What’s more, the internet also provides a venue for self-expression that is imbued with the illusion of privacy. Tweeting to a group of followers can hardly feel the same as speaking before a cluster of reporters. Of course, our reality is that online posting has become the modern equivalent of shouting from the rooftops. Media members, long denied any meaningful sound bytes from their athlete quarry, are now in a frenzy to out-scoop one another via their Twitter subscriptions.

These brief, staccato glimpses into an athlete’s life, then, are often magnified many times over by this attendant media coverage. As a result, a slew of new Twitter-related controversies have erupted, causing a general scramble on the part of coaches and owners to reel in off-script players and head off similar media firestorms in the future.

Milwaukee Bucks’ forward Charlie Villanueva earned the ire of his coach Scott Skiles when he tweeted a recap of his coach’s halftime pep talk — during the actual halftime period. Such in-game insight violated Skiles’ notion of privacy (seeking to protect the inner-workings that the rest of us long to listen in on), and he quickly forbade the entire team from live action tweeting. Other teams have enacted similar bans, but not every tweet is game-related.

San Diego Charger linebacker Shawne Merriman was recently embroiled in a Twitter-versy in which reality TV star Tila Tequila accused him of assaulting her at his home. Merriman’s Twitter feed merely referred followers to a lawyer’s statement, but Tequila’s feed featured a series of accusations that threw fuel on the fire of a dispute that would have ordinarily been tamped down by the strategic use of legalese. Meanwhile, the brother of the Arizona Cardinals’ star receiver Larry Fitzgerald has posted (and since deleted) tweets relaying his brother’s criticism of quarterback Kurt Warner and the lack of plays getting him the ball.

Interestingly, Twitter seems not to be producing one specific breed of controversy, but rather serving as a medium through which controversies — which would otherwise be suppressed or shut out of the more conventional news cycle — are refreshed and kept current in the media spotlight. As such, Twitter represents a dire threat to any interest seeking to control popular access to pro athletes — their thoughts, their personal lives, even their families. By restricting athlete tweets, the thinking goes, their image and message becomes more manageable and, hence, more consumable.

The reason why so much of what we see of players is scripted is an economic one. Keeping them on-message means that advertising revenue continues to flow. Twitter, however, offers the chance for a radical departure from those staid scripts.

And that’s precisely why greater regulation and oversight of tweeting and other electronic messaging is likely for athletes, a move that may, in the long run, be both counter-intuitive and counter-productive. While not all fans crave the prurient details of athletes’ private lives, they do long for a meaningful deviation from the pointless back-and-forth affair that makes up players’ relationship with conventional sports media. This is because fan attraction operates on a key paradox: that athletes are just like, and yet always better, than we are.

These Twitter accounts help to establish athletes’ humanity, just as their in-game exploits underscore their exceptionalism. By following their tweets, fans gain the illusion of connection that drives so much of web 2.0 technology.

Team owners and television networks should realize that Twitter is not a threat, but an opportunity. The money to be made by humanizing players and bringing them closer to their fans through tweeting should be music to their ears.