Lately, I've felt a bit like I warped back into 20th century sports: the Bulls are deep in the playoffs again, the Knicks made the postseason, hockey in Chicago is terrible, basketball is headed the first lockout since 1998, and the Bears botched a trade on draft day. There have been a lot of hints that I entered some sort of sports hot tub time machine. But, I was abruptly reminded that it is still 2011 when Rashard Mendenhall released three tweets that, in less than two hundred words, managed to piss off almost every football fan in America.
I'm in my mid twenties, I have a Facebook, I'm an avid iPhone user, and I check my email about eight more times per day than is healthy. But, Twitter is still a strange phenomenon from my point of view. If you are not familiar with Twitter, it is an internet tool that allows people-particularly famous people followed by hundreds of thousands of users-to express their thoughts instantaneously in less than 150 characters. 150 characters is a small paragraph so, axiomatically, that means that not only does the service encourage its users to spit out whatever is on their minds-however distasteful-it makes them do it in a way that is hardly conductive to complex thought.
Perhaps because of the instant and enduring attention it offers, Twitter has proven particularly addictive to professional athletes and many have now become serial Tweeters. The issue became serious enough last year that the NBA and NFL set up specific rules about when and how players can Tweet and have even issued enforcement fines. Most Tweets are benign (if stupid); for example some athletes use it to walk their fans through their daily routine. Why anyone would want to log in to Twitter and see that their favorite athlete had written, "just brushed my teeth this new toothpaste is fabulous," is beyond me but to each their own. Those kinds of Tweets may seem dumb to most of us but they don't do any harm and seem to feed certain athletes' need for constant attention.
However, some athletes have taken their Tweets beyond the toothbrush stage and have begun writing things so distasteful that they are jeopardizing their own careers. Last week, American tennis player Donald Young - a serial underachiever whose sole claim to fame thus far in his career is the number of unearned wild card entries he has been given - used Twitter to blast the United States Tennis Association. His Tweet contained numerous curse words and implied that the USTA had screwed Young out of a successful career. His tweet was less than a paragraph long but it provoked a violent backlash from the USTA and probably ruined Young's chances at getting any more help from the organization in the future.
Earlier this week, Rashard Mendenhall took the bad Tweet trend a step further. In three successive tweets, Mendenhall wrote that Americans should not celebrate Osama Bin Laden's death, that they should not hate him because they have not listened to his terrorist arguments, and that he doesn't believe that the planes destroyed the twin towers on September 11th, 2001. Regardless of your politics-and Mendenhall is entitled to his opinions-the tweets were a near suicidal career move. The Steelers felt a need to release a statement condemning the Tweets within twelve hours and, while they may not admit it, probably considered cutting the star young running back. Regardless, Mendenhall is now reviled by a significant portion of the American populace and it will take years for him to live it down ... all because of three short Tweet sentences. The conclusion: PLAYERS SHOULD STOP TWEETING.
Here's why: we all get angry sometimes. It's that simple. Every single one of us has moments where we get upset, angry, or confused and think or say things that we later regret. The problem is that Twitter presents an opportunity to express those soon to be regretted ideas to millions of people in the starkest, least thoughtful way possible. So, when a pro athlete gets angry-like Donald Young-or a bit too radical-like Mendenhall, Twitter allows them to make an instant (and instantly regretted decision) to share those thoughts with the world. And, in almost all cases, those provocative, radical thoughts have serious consequences.
Therefore, athletes should stop Tweeting because they need to realize that they are public figures. They represent themselves and their employers and, while they are entitled to free speech and their own beliefs, they need to frame their ideas in a respectful, appropriate manner to prevent their career suicide. Traditional modes of media - telephone calls, press statements, emails, and the like - allow people to frame their thoughts effectively, which makes them far more reasonable than Twitter's one line bombshells. As Young and Mendenhall proved, those one second, thoughtless one-liners can prove devastating. So, to protect themselves, athletes should stop Tweeting and learn that, just like everyone else, they need to think before they speak ... or Tweet.
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