Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Social Conundrum

Boston has become a championship-caliber sports town with the successes of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics in the past ten years. Both the athletes and the fans have become spoiled with high expectations. It's a ring or bust. Boston is notorious for harsh judgments on players from both media and fans. Perfection is a necessity. Because of this do-or-die mentality, public relations personnel train athletes on what to say during interviews to prevent controversies from occurring. The Twitter world, however, has changed that. And it's for the better.

The players who choose to join Twitter expose themselves in a way that fans have never experienced before. Hometown favorites like Wes Welker, Paul Pierce, Jon Lester and Tyler Seguin are now more accessible to anyone who wishes to tweet at them. The chances of them actually reading your tweet and/or retweeting it, however, are doubtful at best.

Twitter has become so popular among professional athletes that there is a specific website dedicated to their accounts: The site allows fans to search by league and team, to see the number of followers and shows each individual's Twitter time line without even linking to the original page. Talk about easy access.

The question remains whether this change in player-fan interaction benefits the athletes or the fans or neither. When it comes down to it, it really depends on the athlete and how they use Twitter, but I believe that in the end, Boston athletes tweeting about what is on their mind is going to benefit their relationships with fans.

Teams in every sports town have hired social media consultants to attempt to control the potential damage done through Twitter since p.r. representatives can no longer control post-game comments through every media outlet. Reporters still receive the standard "We-played-our-best-but-could-do-better" quotes, but players can now express themselves with their real voices through tweets. They even make them sound human. No scripted crap.

The NFL and NBA have already issued fines to players ranting about their teams or leagues on Twitter. One would think the threat of fines would limit what players say in their tweets. But constant misspellings, incorrect grammar and jock-like exclamations that fans don't see during television interviews and radio broadcasts portray players' true voices. This is what fans want to see; they make mistakes just like us.

Take Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots' star tight end and this season's favorite TB12 target, for example. He often composes his tweets with the likes of getting "Gronk'd" and "hyped" while working out. His language on Twitter only enhances his explosive presence on the field; whether fans label him as a dumb jock or a gentle giant, they love him because of his personality on and off the field.

Gronkowski can also be used as an example of a social media mishap. He recently posed with a porn star (pictured below) to supposedly increase his number of Twitter followers. The woman, BiBi Jones, tweeted the picture, and the controversy spread like wildfire throughout New England. Whether Gronkowski meant for the picture to be innocent or not, he apologized to Bob Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, and Gronk's reputation hardly suffered. He made a mistake? He's a real person? Who knew.

Rob Gronkowski and BiBi Jones
Photo courtesy of
While Gronkowski's tweets enhance his persona as the fun-loving, hard-working athlete, some players' tweets are unexpected and allow fans to experience their favorite athletes through their own voice. Wes Welker, one of the Patriots' wide receivers, recently joined Twitter and has already shown fans his carefree attitude off the field. During games, cameras rarely catch a smile on Welker's face when he's on the sideline. All business, no play. But his tweets prove otherwise. He lists himself as a "Professional tweeter that wastes his talents playing American Football." Besides his creative Rex Ryan feet interview (which he was fined for), Welker has always followed by the neutralizing post-game interview rules. Maybe it's the wanna-be sports journalist in me, but I would like to know when he's getting Gronk'd with Gronk (which happens quite frequently, in case you were wondering) if only for pure entertainment.

Boston fans need to see their athletes in their own elements and in their own voices to establish emotional connections. Chemistry between fans and players is important because it keeps up momentum during the season -- and sells tickets, for that matter. No one wants to attend games played by emotionless, repetitive athletes. Fans crave personality. Anything less than extraordinary becomes boring (i.e. 2011 Red Sox).

Twitter allows players to use their own voices, but now more and more athletes tweet only to endorse products and causes. This, of course, is not a bad thing, especially if they preach for donations to certain charities. However, it's sometimes hard to tell whether the cause is important to the player or it's just the voice of the team representatives coming through. Twitter should not turn into another form of post-game stoicism. But it will.

Red Sox designated slugger David Ortiz and Celtics stars Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo tweet to endorse their sponsors and charities, almost never giving away personal details. It proves Twitter can be used for marketing purposes only, but it still leaves a feeling of detachment from everyday life. Do I want Pierce to tweet every time he lights up a blunt? No. But something a little more personal to let fans know that he's human would be nice.

(Side note: I would love, love, love to see Kevin Garnett on Twitter. It's hilarious just thinking about it. There isn't an account that has been verified for him. It will never happen, but one can hope.)

Some athletes have perfected the art of using Twitter for both professional and personal reasons. Vince Wilfork, who boasts a resume of Patriots nose tackle, body slammer and hug-able teddy bear, tweets about endorsements and family life but never crosses the line into the world of inappropriate athlete etiquette. His tweets allow fans to peek into his daily life -- something they wouldn't have been able to understand otherwise, unless it became an HBO special. (I believe an HBO special on Wilfork's life would be highly entertaining. If you don't believe me, check out his wife's Twitter feed.) His account also acts as a promotion tool for his endorsement labels -- one of which, funny enough, is Big Y Foods. It's having your cake and eating it, too.

Even when used as a so-called inappropriate outlet to complain about leagues, teams, other players, and announcing retirement (thanks, Shaq), social media represents the only place where fans can "know" the person first and player second. Boston athletes have been so separated from normal life that they have risen above celebrity status and almost appear as gods. (It doesn't help that some fans actually worship them as such.) It's hard for fans to relate to unflappable immortals.

If leagues restrict athletes' Twitter accounts like they have for comments during television interviews, then how are fans supposed to realize their normality through freedom of expression? A big part of life is messing up and learning from mistakes. If leagues take away the chance to make those mistakes, how can an athlete mature into a role model?

Social media provides that outlet in which they can mature. Twitter permits truth. Truth composes reality. Without our beloved Boston athletes being able to express themselves freely, how do we know what is reality and what is mirage? Answer: we don't.

Keep those tweets coming, Gronk.


Sara Amaral is a guest blogger for The Truth. You can view more of her writing by clicking here.


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