News Column

Social Media Anxiety: Some Athletes Stumble in New Minefield

July 10, 2013

It didn't take Alex Rodriguez long to learn the perils of social media. Shortly after the New York Yankees infielder launched his Twitter account in late June, a fan welcomed him by writing: "(at)ARod got a Twitter? Will his account stop working in #October?"

It went downhill from there. Nine tweets into his Twitter career, Rodriguez posted an injury update that prompted Yankees general manager Brian Cashman to advise A-Rod to zip his Twitter lips.

Rodriguez is hardly the only athlete to struggle with the minefield of social media. Things got so bad for struggling Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez that he beat a tweet retreat, deactivating his account after an onslaught of fan abuse.

In the Bay Area, players know the feeling. Some have quit. ("It was a pretty devastating experience for me," the Giants' Barry Zito acknowledged last October.) And others such as the 49ers' Kyle Williams have soldiered on through death threats.

Williams, the Warriors' Stephen Curry, the Sharks' Logan Couture and the Raiders' Chris Kluwe were among the prolific local tweeters contacted for this story, and their warning is clear: The digital frontier is no place for the faint of heart.

What lures them in is a chance to engage directly with their fans. What drives them away, or sometimes makes them snap, are the so-called Twitter trolls_those who heckle, stalk or otherwise annoy in 140 characters or less, sometimes ruthlessly.

Williams got multiple death threats after his misplays helped seal the 49ers' fate in the January 2012 NFC title game. Still, he never considered closing his account.

"I looked at it the way other people would look at it: 'OK, he's running from it,' " Williams said. "I think if I were to do that, it would have been kind of childish. You take what's coming to you, and you move on."

Giants first baseman Brandon Belt still embraces Twitter, but he learned the hard way that it's nearly impossible for an athlete to stay out of the 140-character cross hairs. Belt made what he thought was an innocuous reply to a question about the Dodgers' free agent spending at the Giants Fan Fest in February when he said, "You can't buy chemistry."

The tweet venom from Dodger Nation was so vicious ("(at)bbelt9 should learn to shut your mouth sometime" ... "Hey (at)Bbelt9 can ya teach me how to Melky? #STEROIDS #CANTBUYCHEMISTRY #DODGERS") that Belt avoided Twitter for weeks.

"Man," he wrote at one point, "these guys are angry."


If even cautious tweeters can make a wrong turn, imagine what happens to the reckless and unrepentant. Brandon Jacobs essentially tweeted his way out of a job with the 49ers last season by griping about his playing time and posting photos of himself from his better days with the New York Giants on Instagram. The 49ers suspended him for the final three regular-season games and then released him before the playoffs.

Jacobs' path was so destructive that it's now taught in seminars. Lee Gordon, who provides lessons to young athletes on successful social media strategies, puts up slides of Jacobs' tweets as a way of scaring kids straight.

"We've kind of used that as our inaugural: 'This can happen to you' lesson regarding Instagram," said Gordon, the director of corporate communications for 180 Media. "Here's a guy that had the opportunity to go back to the Super Bowl again. Now, who knows where he's going to go? Because when you Google his name, that's what comes up."

Tennis star Roger Federer was determined not to be that guy. He waited to join Twitter only after spending time studying how other athletes handled it.

"At the end of the day, it's got to be something I need to feel comfortable with," Federer told reporters at the French Open.

The very first response he received was an R-rated question about his personal life that prompted a story on Welcome to Twitter, Mr. Federer.

"You're always going to have that on the Internet . . . because it's the Internet," reasoned Kluwe, the Raiders punter. "If you're putting yourself out there, people are going to say things that they would never say to your face."

Kluwe said his life as an online gamer, where smack talk is de riguer, prepared him for the anonymous assaults he sometimes endures on Twitter. And it's a good thing, too, because his political stances opened a door for tormentors that go beyond the usual, "You stink."

Kluwe, who has little patience for filters,

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Source: Copyright San Jose Mercury News (CA) 2013. Distributed by MCT Information Services

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