By Eric Clark
Social media can be treacherous terrain for professional and college athletes. But if used with a specific objective, experts say, there might not be a more powerful marketing tool.
At the collegiate level, athletic departments generally monitor athletes’ Twitter use carefully, but it’s impossible to police entirely. Former North Alabama football player Bradley Patterson was dismissed after posting a racist tweet about President Obama in 2012, while former Oklahoma wide receiver Jaz Reynolds was suspended for insensitive tweets after a shooting incident at Texas in 2010.
The Iowa football program aims to avoid controversy completely by asking players to refrain using Twitter. And other schools, such as Illinois, designate rotating staffers to monitor athletes’ social media activity.
“Each coach has their own unwritten rule to not embarrass the team, the university, or themselves,” said Illinois associate athletic director Kent Brown.
But the ante is upped when players move from the collegiate to professional ranks, said ESPN business analyst Andrew Brandt. Bad behavior on social media not only can harm a player’s overall reputation, but can also damage their marketing potential.
“It can be very costly in terms of endorsements,” Brandt said. “Players are getting smarter, but many of them can stand to lose a lot.”
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III last month engaged in minor spats on Twitter and Instagram with fans questioning their commitment to craft.
Although relatively inconsequential, the events illustrated how quickly social media interactions can potentially damage reputations.
Former NFL running back Rashard Mendenhall lost an endorsement deal with apparel company Champion in 2011 after posting controversial tweets regarding 9/11 and the death of Osama bin Laden. Albeit an extreme example, Mendenhall’s situation is indicative of how athletes can destroy major avenues of income with one post.
But hiring a company to help manage their social media profiles and drive player-specific content on their websites can help athletes strategically manage the message they deliver to the public on a daily basis.
David Neiman, whose company Athlete Interactive has 20 clients, ranging from Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams to the lesser-known professional skydiver Nate Smith, said professional athletes don’t need to have star power to necessitate his firm’s services.
“I absolutely think an athlete doesn’t necessarily have to have a huge following to make services like ours worthwhile,” Neiman said. “Because it really just comes down to what their goals are.”
By establishing those goals, Neiman said, a lot of athletes can avoid the mistakes they might otherwise run into on social media. Neiman alluded to Griffin’s previous negative interactions with fans on Instagram and suggested the quarterback needed more strategy behind his social media activity.
“If Robert Griffin III just abstained from interacting with anybody in that way, that would probably solve a lot of his problems,” Neiman said. “But I think if he’s not doing it at all, he’s missing out on all of the advantages of social media.
“I’m sure the people around him have some sort of plan in place for him, but from the outside it sort of seems like he’s just kind of doing whatever. … There doesn’t seem to be any kind of real cohesive strategy to what he’s doing online.”
Neiman said his company helps athletes control their own online content, which helps players maximize their earning potential, both in their sport and as endorsers. Deron Williams famously had his own beat reporter from Athlete Interactive, as reported by Wall Street Journal.
“A huge part of the content development process is trust,” Neiman said. “Because you can’t tell a great story without having access to the stories themselves.”
Mike Donnelly, senior manager of communications with the NFL Players Association, said it’s critical players be actively involved with the people they work with. The NFLPA also educates players on the pitfalls of social media.
“With the continued growth of social media platforms, we think it’s really important to remind the players of building a positive image,” Donnelly said. “But we always advise players that even though you’re getting advice from an agent or a marketing rep, the player needs to stay very much engaged.”
Neiman said his company isn’t infatuated with growing the number of clients they work with, but the growth of the company and others like it is inevitable.
“The need for what we do is only increasing as all of these tools become more and more available,” he said.