Twitter craze is changing the face of sports (cont.)
Another attraction: Twitter lets athletes speak on their own terms. "It's going to be useful during the season, because after a game, I'll be able to say my piece instead of just allowing different media outlets to portray me how they want to portray me," said St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson, one of football's prolific tweeters. Talk to any athlete or coach about the benefits of Twitter, and they'll put message control at the top of the list. "In this world we live in now, everybody becomes media," said Shaquille O'Neal, whose enormous following of more than 1 million has fueled Twitter fever in sports. "If something is going to be said, hey, it's coming from me, it's coming from my phone." Journalists may lament athletes passing over the middle men. But honestly, what's more interesting, a "we gave 110 percent" from the postgame podium, or a tweet like this from Shaq: "Dam manny ramirez, come on man Agggggggggh, agggggggh, agggggh."
Twitter is two-way talk, which has perks. No, Serena Williams probably won't read your stroke -- or conditioning -- tips. But when Cink mentioned that his iPod got soaked in a rainstorm, Twitter pals offered a remedy: Put the device in a bag of rice, which sucks the moisture out of the hard drive. iPod saved. Jackson solicited opinions about which suits to buy for the upcoming season, though in this case his followers weren't much help. "Hell, no," said the Rams running back, when asked if Twitter feedback impacted his sartorial selections. Torres exchanges parenting ideas with other moms. Milwaukee Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva, who almost sparked Armageddon by tweeting from the locker room at halftime earlier this year, asked followers for restaurant recommendations in Indianapolis. Responses flooded his phone. After agonizing deliberations, Villanueva chose ... Hooters. "The food was great," he says. The waitresses? "They were hot."
These tips don't always yield such bliss. Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love, after finishing a physical therapy session in Los Angeles, tweeted about spotting two NBA players in a nail salon. Respecting their right to pedicure privacy, Love hid the identities of the players. A few followers, however, encouraged him to touch up his cuticles. "People were like, 'you know, there's nothing wrong with a man taking care of himself,'" Love said. He decided to give the mani-pedi a shot, but when Love walked out of the salon after the softening, the cameras from TMZ, the celebrity gossip outfit, were waiting to give him hell. "Yeah, my followers basically got me busted," Love said.
Twitter has the potential to cause more serious trouble in college sports. Coaches are creating accounts with an eye toward increasing a program's visibility, and ultimately connecting with prospects. "It's a recruiting tool, it's fan-base enhancement," said LSU football coach Les Miles, who has more than 4,500 Twitter followers. "If we can reach some people who know the prospect or is across the street from a great fan, it creates a conversation that spills into their lives, and makes LSU closer to them."
Coaches must tiptoe through a minefield: the NCAA prohibits them from posting messages about a specific player, just like they can't woo a recruit through more traditional media outlets, like newspapers and television. "It's a lot of navigating," said Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean, who insists he needs Twitter to create a buzz about his rebuilding efforts. "When you're dealing with this volume of technology, this volume of people, you're going to make a mistake now and then. I'm very cognizant of it, but that's not to say we're not going to make a mistake. I know it won't be willingly."
Unlike his good friend Crean, who convinced him to tweet in the first place, new Kentucky coach John Calipari refuses to call Twitter a recruiting tool. "Would you stop," said Calipari, who has quickly amassed more than 140,000 Twitter followers. "Please. They did a study that said most people on Twitter are between 35 and 45. On my page, it may be a bit younger, but I'd still imagine it's in the 30s. I'm creating good will here, because people here are getting to know me, versus someone else telling them who I am."
Nielsen Online, in fact, did report that the majority of Twitter.com visitors fall into the 35-49 demographic, though the site appeals to the younger crowd, too. Still, Calipari said he'd be "stunned" if more than a miniscule number of his followers were teenage basketball players dreaming of a Kentucky scholarship. When he tweeted "I'm on the baseline front row" from Cleveland Cavaliers playoff game, and "talked to LeBron" after, it didn't cross his mind that a prospect would be dazzled? "No," he said.
Calipari is quite sensitive about the issue. "You can't equate everything I say to recruiting," he tweeted May 14. "Open up your minds a little bit and let's have some fun with this." Regardless of Calipari's motives for tweeting, the technology changes the recruiting game. How far will coaches push the Twitter rules, which the NCAA admits are still evolving? Sure, a coach can't tweet about a player, or even announce that he's driving to a specific high school to watch a game. But he may send coded messages to kids. For instance, Crean could tweet: "was in French Lick last night -- wow, that town has a shooter." Technically, such Twitter messages may be clean, though they clearly violate the spirit of the rules. How coy will certain coaches be? Also, a coach may send a harmless response to an anonymous Twitter follower. What if that person turns out to be a recruited athlete? Is the coach in hot water? Bottom line: NCAA officials better start monitoring Twitter, because that's where the next scandals are incubating.
Pro coaches are not immune to Twitter controversy, either. Last month, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa filed suit against the social networking site claiming an unauthorized page using his name damaged his reputation and caused emotional distress. The lawsuit includes a screen shot of a tweet from April 19 that said, "Lost 2 out of 3, but we made it out of Chicago without one drunk driving incident or dead pitcher."