With Twitter's Arrival, NFL Loses Control of Image Game

Fans are getting an even more up close and personal look at athletes thanks to social media service Twitter.
Fans are getting an even more up close and personal look at athletes thanks to social media service Twitter. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Thousands of fans gathered in Ashburn last week for the opening of Redskins training camp, separated from their oversize heroes by a long barricade. But when the players left the field and returned to the locker room, fans suddenly had unprecedented access to the players' thoughts and whims through their laptops and mobile devices.

For the first time, fans aren't dependent on media reports for training camp updates. Players themselves are divulging certain details, from the humorous to the inconsequential, using Twitter feeds.

"Had a six inch Sub for lunch and now I'm headed back to practice number 2. Ugh," tight end Chris Cooley told his 12,000-plus followers on the opening day of camp.

Rookie Keith Eloi, trying to make the team as a wide receiver, offered: "Man breaking in new cleats on the first day of practice might be the worst thing to go thru besides a knee injury!!!!"

While athletes have used blogs the past couple of years, they say Twitter is quicker, more accessible and less likely to be filtered through agents, publicists or team officials before publication. From the perspective of both fan and athlete, that's a good thing. But the National Football League is an image-obsessed league, routinely beset by athletes' off-the-field antics. Twitter has already grown into a social media tool over which the league has little to no control.

In all, 10 Redskins players use active Twitter accounts to keep in touch with friends and fans through 140-character bursts. It's part of a revolution that has touched other sports, but one that didn't boom in the NFL until after last season's Super Bowl. Since then, dozens of players throughout the league have opened Twitter accounts, giving fans an intriguing look at the offseason -- previously a period in which most players essentially disappeared from public view.

It has league officials and social media experts predicting the upcoming season will be unlike any before.

"I think Twitter has a huge opportunity for football players in particular to break out of the helmet and become a person over and above some number out on the field," said Kathleen Hessert, a media strategist who has encouraged athletes such as Shaquille O'Neal and Danica Patrick to Twitter. "Twitter is clearly becoming not only the technology du jour, and frankly, seeing as much success as athletes have had with it touching fans and creating new fans, I think anybody who doesn't look at it in the NFL is really just closing their eyes to reality."

Twitter has ruffled some feathers in recent weeks. While players test their boundaries and wrestle for their independence, league and teams have kept a careful eye on Twitter feeds, trying to maintain a semblance of order.

On Friday, San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman punched into his Blackberry: "Coach said we cant tweet in the blding so i called my lawyer and found a lupo [loophole] in that contract...tweeting outside yeaaaaa."

It's an extension of an anticipated showdown between Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco (formerly Chad Johnson) and the league. Last month, Ochocinco floated the idea that he would Twitter from the sidelines during regular season games.

The league sent out word almost immediately that it has a pre-existing rule barring the use of mobile devices from the bench area. Ochocinco, who has nearly 79,000 followers, immediately responded on his Twitter page: "Damn NFL and these rules, I am going by my own set of rules, I ain't hurting nobody or getting in trouble, I am putting my foot down!!"

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