Social media and professional sports are the two major passions in my life, and few things bring me more delight than when the two converge. For more than a decade, professional athletes have been using social media to connect with fans and share their personal lives in ways they never could before. As an avid supporter, it enhances my love of the game to not only cheer the team on the field, but to be able to view and connect with my favorite players off of the field.
The athletes who are using social media to craft their brand are now trending younger and younger. Some, even as young as junior high, are establishing social media accounts, and a few wind up gaining more followers before they receive their high school diploma than most small businesses gain all year. For example, Tre’ McKitty, a tight end who matriculated at a high school with close to 700 students and has committed to play football for Oregon next season, has more than 3,400 followers on Twitter.
However, the use of social media during recent current events, such as the killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota and the shooting of five police officers in Dallas, have landed several professional athletes in hot water for poorly timed or controversial status updates. Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell’s Instagram post depicting a masked man slitting the throat of a Caucasian police officer is one such example.
Professional athletes are just like everyone else – they watch the news and ingest what is happening daily in their communities. And just like everyone else, they have defined opinions about topics such as politics, violence, and race relations. But unlike the majority of us, they also have thousands of onlookers ready to judge their every Tweet.
An athlete taking a firm stance on a controversial topic is not new. Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali is likely one of the most notable athlete-activists, but he spoke out during a very different time in the spectrum of our media consumption. Words that Ali spoke were not instantly shared around the world and/or manipulated by others simply by re-Tweeting.
Most professional athletes do not have a publicist or a public relations firm managing their social media. Having a third party manage their accounts would create a layer of inauthenticity that could diminish the impact of their online presence. But as a result, they often recklessly air their personal opinion to thousands of onlookers who stand ready to attack the thoughts and opinions of celebrities.
There’s no reason an athlete should be afraid of or unwilling to use social media to help grow their personal brand. But fair or not, they are held to different standards. With that in mind, I wanted to provide current and future professional athletes a few tips for speaking their mind while also managing their brand:
Know the rules. All sports have rules. The organization that provides you a paycheck also has rules specifically outlining social media use. Know them, follow them, and you will likely avoid a large fine or very painful public faux pas.
Check your ego. While extremely tempting, your social media platforms should not be used as vessel for you to solicit anything beyond praise for your play on the field and/or your community service work off of the field. Topics such as how you look today or how nice of a car you drive are just a slippery slope to negative attention. If you need positive praise, call your mom (or agent).
Do your homework. If posting about a controversial topic, make sure you have done your homework and understand all sides of the issue. Make sure any facts you share are accurate and be willing to defend whatever stance you take.
Use good grammar. It might sound silly, but it is effective. Proper grammar in your writing is one of the most important elements – it makes a statement about you as a professional and as a person. If you want to be taken seriously, a good place to start is by spelling out “you” rather than just typing “u.”
Always be diplomatic. You are not required to respond to or engage with every person that has posted to your account(s). If you do decide to engage with a negative commenter, use words and phrases that mitigate the circumstance rather than incite more conflict. You wouldn’t give a live on-camera interview without carefully crafting your response, so take that same approach when responding to online comments or questions.
Phones and bars don’t mix. You can’t always control what fans and onlookers post, but you can control what you post. When headed out for a night with friends, it might be a good idea to leave the phone in the car. Not having it removes any and all temptation to post something that you can’t take back.
Think of your mom. A good rule of thumb before posting any image and/or controversial statement is: Would you feel comfortable with this post being read in a court of law? In front of your head coach? How about to your mother? If no, then consider revising or not posting altogether.