Sawhney: Let players tweet — but monitor them

May 11, 2011, 1:31 a.m.

I don’t quite know what to make of the controversy over Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall’s tweets about the successful operation to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

To give a quick recap, Mendenhall posted a couple of bin Laden-related tweets on May 2, the day after the news initially broke. He first wrote, “What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side…”

He also later added another tweet, saying, “For those of you who said you want to see Bin Laden burn in hell and piss on his ashes, I ask how would God feel about your heart?”

Despite an attempt to clarify those messages, Mendenhall’s comments whipped up a predictable storm of controversy across the Internet, with sports commentators and other athletes rushing to pass judgment. The Steelers organization issued a statement distancing itself from Mendenhall and his comments, and he quickly lost one of his corporate endorsements. The running back was generally ostracized and condemned for what looked like a statement in favor of bin Laden. A commentator at a Pennsylvania newspaper, Mark Madden, even opined that the Steelers should cut Mendenhall if he does not apologize and that the organization should bar its players from maintaining public accounts on social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

I disagree with Madden’s stance on cutting Mendenhall—the premise that you can be fired from your job for expressing contrarian views worries me deeply. However, it’s interesting that he would suggest preventing athletes from accessing social networking.

Before the advent of the Internet and the spread of social networking, athletes and their comments were generally filtered by several sources before ever reaching the public eye. Every professional and college team has media relations staff tasked specifically with managing the public personas of their athletes.

Generally, athletes (and anyone, for that matter) speak much more carefully when there’s a journalist waving a microphone or a camera in their faces. The “old media,” as it were, acts as a kind of filter itself, as only a small fraction of sound bites from a press conference actually end up in print or on SportsCenter. Even then, there’s always a media relations staffer on hand to shut down the interview if the questions get too edgy.

By contrast, social networking websites and other Internet media platforms, like blogging, allows players to reach fans and the public unfiltered. Twitter doesn’t have any of the controls that exist in the traditional media business; no Steelers staffer monitors every tweet from every player. However, that forum is just as public, and sometimes even more so, than the sanitized comments that dreary sportswriters and columnists (like yours truly) write up and run in print on a weekly basis.

So back to the original question: should professional and college teams ban athletes from using Twitter or maintaining public Facebook profiles? My initial reaction, naturally, is that they shouldn’t—to do so would abridge the First Amendment rights that my colleagues and I hold dear. However, athletes are very public representatives of their teams and achieve large followings in the first place only because of those high-profile positions. Whether I agree with it or not, Mendenhall’s comments did not reflect well on the Steelers, whom he is charged with representing in public.

Still, I like having athletes on Twitter, and I think the fans and the athletes themselves like it, too. The best solution, then, is probably one that combines the speed and connectivity of new media with the controls that existed in older media. Teams shouldn’t kick athletes off Twitter altogether, but instead should require that players put all tweets through their media department before sending them out into the web. Athletes will still get to tweet, fans will get to connect with their favorite players and organizations won’t find themselves unexpectedly embarrassed by the players who represent them.

Kabir Sawhney would love to filter your tweets and wall posts. All of them. Remember to check with Kabir before you drunkenly PM that hottie this weekend at ksawhney “at”


Kabir Sawhney is currently a desk editor for the News section. He served as the Managing Editor of Sports last volume.

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