“If you told someone a month ago they need to look into this stuff, they’d say ‘Okay, whatever,’ ” one agent said. “But you tell them right now, I think it has everyone’s attention.”
That reaction was prompted by headlines surrounding a trio of young baseball players. The Milwaukee Brewers’ Josh Hader, the Atlanta Braves’ Sean Newcomb and the Washington Nationals’ Trea Turner all used offensive language in posts made during their teen years, unnoticed at the time but belatedly bandied across the Twitter-verse after they were exhumed by Internet sleuths.
Such scrutiny is not new. But Hader’s transgressions especially, discovered during the All-Star Game last month, caught the attention of athletes across the sports world.
Nick Chanock, senior vice president of baseball with the Wasserman agency, said the revelations of the past two weeks have sparked “a lot of dialogue” within the agency and among its clients.
“We’re having active discussions with all our players,” said Chanock, whose clients include Chicago Cubs infielder Javier Baez, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado and New York Yankees designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton. The examples of Hader, Newcomb and Turner were unfortunate, Chanock said, but “we have to use them as an educational tool for our players.”
The work begins early
In interviews, several agents described both their vetting process for potential clients — “We’re looking at stuff before they sign,” one said — and their responsibility once they’re formally representing an athlete. Some requested anonymity so they could discuss the matter freely.
Agents said it’s not unusual to root out ill-considered and immature social media posts and that they often have cleaned up the accounts themselves, often erring on the side of caution.
“The problem if we didn’t scrub anything, I don’t think it would be an issue, but as you know in this day and age, words are powerful,” one agent said.
Cubs pitcher Jon Lester — via his own Twitter account — urged athletes this week to “please spend the 5 minutes it takes to scrub your account of anything you wouldn’t want plastered next to your face on the front page of a newspaper.” But it’s not that easy, agents said.
Scrolling through thousands of old tweets could be tedious and cumbersome. An advanced search is required for older tweets, and relying solely on keywords could be incomplete. There are third-party companies that specialize in hunting down and deleting offensive old posts, but players might be hesitant to turn over the keys — and the password — for their accounts.
“It’s not a five-minute process, and Twitter makes it hard for you to do,” said a representative from one prominent agency. “I think there’s some misconceptions out there. That’s not to excuse any offensive tweet, but the process is not as easy as people think.”
And social media outlets can be a double-edged sword, the agents said: an essential brand-building tool for their clients, valued by sponsors, but also a particularly precarious platform.
“Whenever we actually are looking to recruit a client, we take a deep dive into what their social platforms are,” one prominent NBA agent said, “and frankly, with everything going on right now, we’ve gone deeper and deeper to things that might even be construed as any negative connotation.”
When the Chicago Bulls drafted Bobby Portis in 2015, an old tweet resurfaced in which he was critical of new teammates Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol.
Portis huddled with his agents immediately after the draft, according to Rachel Stein, who runs public relations for Priority Sports, and they quickly came up with a response: a humble apology in which the young player asked his new teammates what kind of doughnuts they preferred. Then he brought doughnuts to his introductory news conference, “and a bad situation quickly became a running joke,” Stein recalled.
“Since then, we have taken precautionary measures to monitor players’ accounts before they become professionals,” said Stein, who works with athletes specifically on their social media habits. (Priority’s clients include Kirk Cousins, Gordon Hayward and Bradley Beal.)
“As soon as we sign a prospect, we access their Twitter account and sweep through all of their old posts,” she said. “We’ve also been in touch with all of our veteran clients about this issue now as well.”
Indeed, agents have used the recent headlines as a teaching opportunity, particularly for younger clients who were active on social media long before the spotlight found them.
“Our job is to help these guys and advise them,” said a representative of an agency that works across multiple sports. “The responsibility is theirs, but we’re here as a resource for them. In the end, it’s the player, it’s his timeline, it’s his responsibility.”
It's all about timing
And the unearthing of potentially offensive tweets has become a recurring story line as a generation raised with social media enters pro sports. In April — one day before the NFL draft — racially insensitive tweets from quarterback Josh Allen surfaced, many using the n-word and dating from Allen’s high school years. He was still drafted seventh by the Buffalo Bills but not before a frenzied day of consternation, criticism and scrutiny.
Before last year’s NBA draft, prospects Zach Collins and Dennis Smith Jr. had to answer for social media activity from their high school days. They were drafted in the first round, but Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said “one of the first things after we drafted Dennis, and I’m talking to him on the phone, I’m like, ‘Dude, I went through your Twitter account. It’s time to get on there and delete.’ ”
“And so he went through it. And to his credit, they were gone,” Cuban said last year during a Summer League broadcast. “He had a lot of stupid stuff on there.”
More recently, the Colorado Rockies selected Mississippi sophomore Ryan Rolison in the first round of June’s draft even though the team was aware of something Rolison tweeted the day President Obama was reelected in 2012: “well we have one hope left...if someone shoots him during his speech.”
“If there was some sort of pattern of behavior, then we’d be talking about a whole different sort of topic,” Rockies General Manager Jeff Bridich told reporters at the time, “but in this world we live in, in this Twitterverse and Twitter world and all this social media, these sorts of things are going to happen.”
Which is why the monitoring starts before the professional level. At the University of Maryland, for example, the football recruiting office makes it a point to scroll through social media timelines.
“If we find something that doesn’t really line up or it causes you to ask more questions, find out more, dig around a little more,” Terrapins football Coach DJ Durkin said. “If it’s something absolutely heinous in what it is, we may make a decision to stop recruiting a guy, which in our time has happened. But not very often. I think guys are more educated on that nowadays.”
Chanock frequently deals with teenage amateurs who are potential future clients and said he always tells them they should assume their social media accounts are constantly “under a microscope,” with everyone from fans to Internet trolls to MLB teams monitoring what they are writing.
“I try to explain to these kids that there’s a responsibility required,” he said. “Clubs are researching [social media posts] extensively. It’s really about education. Once something is out there, it’s hard to get back.”