The Brilliance and Blunders of Pro Athletes on Social Media

Zach Woosley | @Ginge

Athletes face a unique struggle in our information-hungry society. Engaging and interacting with fans is an important part of being a modern superstar, but athletes also have to be aware of protecting their brand, especially in the tumultuous waters of social media.

While dealing with social media can be difficult, the good news is that help is available. Most professional sports leagues now hold annual meetings with players to give them a basic overview of how to use social media, along with potential pitfalls. While that’s good, it may not be enough, especially if the player is looking to market themselves to potential sponsors.

The bigger the star, the bigger the dangers they will face by doing something seemingly innocuous as sharing a photo or commenting on a recent news story. Most have no understanding of the reach they’ll have or the sheer number of eyes that are watching and waiting for an athlete to do or say something that can be turned into a story on the day’s news cycle.

Modern, independent coverage websites like Deadspin and TMZ have people dedicated to finding and turning content created by athletes into posts for their websites. The more controversial the content, the better, because while readers might appreciate an athlete’s in-game feats and off-field charitable work, many would rather read something salacious.

Athletes, their agents and their families can complain about those realities, but the hard-line truth is that Twitter accounts and Facebook pages are not just a place for athletes to express themselves. They are extensions of the athletes’ brands, and the successes and mistakes they make online will likely follow them throughout their careers.

A great example of the positive power of social media is Cincinnati Bengals player Devon Still. In June 2014, Still’s 4-year-old daughter Leah was diagnosed with stage 4 pediatric cancer. Over the course of the next nine months, Still chronicled his daughter’s fight, sharing with the world through Twitter and Instagram the ups and downs he and his family went through, while helping to raise awareness for pediatric cancer. Leah’s cancer is now in remission, and his announcement of this fact was written about on numerous websites and shared across social media, reaching well beyond only football fans.

Still did none of this for personal gain and was entirely focused on helping both his daughter and other children dealing with cancer. By doing so, he won over fans.

The most difficult part of dealing with social media for athletes is properly balancing a show of personality with safe content. No matter how badly they might want to “be themselves” by expressing an opinion or posting a potentially controversial photo, they can’t. Having a social media team to work with allows an athlete to have a filter for what is presented under their name.

While the amount of personally created content that is posted is ultimately up to the individual, having a team behind them can help shape the message and control the flow of information. The athletes’ social media feeds can still be interesting and engaging while allowing them to avoid the pitfalls and controversies that we see so often.

Athletes can still take stands and express opinions, as we saw last year during the protests following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Players in the NFL, NBA and other leagues were openly supporting the protest, often with shirts worn before games.

Could those opinions make them less attractive for companies looking to use them to sell their products? Absolutely, but a coordinated social media strategy on behalf of athletes to help control and shape the message being presented on their behalf can help them deal with the inevitable blowback from people who disagree. It’s always better to have trained professionals dealing with angry Twitter and Facebook users than for athletes trying to handle the rapid and overwhelming flow of information by themselves.

There’s no reason an athlete should be afraid of or unwilling to use social media to help grow their personal brand. With training or regular assistance from a social media team, any athlete can create an entertaining online presence that satiates fans’ desires for information while still ensuring that the athlete is marketable.

Will Nesbit