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Athletes’ knee-jerk, emotion-filled Twitter posts offer uncensored perspective in sports

Never thought I’d see a professional journalist suggest a juicy source stop speaking up.

Then, I saw the media reaction to Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall’s dumb-as-a-post Twitter messages following Osama bin Laden’s death.

“We’ve only heard one side,” Mendenhall insisted, as most of America celebrated the death of a man who masterminded the murder of 3,000 countrymen 10 years ago. “It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak.”

It didn’t take long before the Steelers and the running back himself retracted those comments, “clarifying” that Mendenhall didn’t support bin Laden and the football club respects the work of America’s military.

But what was more curious about this bit of foot in mouth mishap – or, perhaps, Twitter in mouth disease – was the reaction of a few columnists.

“Too bad there isn’t (a 10-minute cooling off period) for Twitter,” wrote Gannett News Service columnist Mike Lopresti, recounting how other athletes found themselves in hot water for ripping coaches or umpires online in the heat of the moment.

Gotta say, my reaction was different. I want to give every player a Twitter account, souped-up iPhone and two-day tutorial on how to use it.

That’s because Twitter manages to do in moments what reporters often spend hours wheedling out of sources. We invest time hanging with them until the defenses go down and we can finally ask a real question with the hope of getting a real answer.

Twitter gets behind practiced PR stances and official representatives to deliver how an athlete really feels, in the moment, when emotions run high. In other words, the kind of stuff we sweat bullets on deadline to excavate for stories.

It is true that the ongoing spread of social media and technology is changing rules at light speed for everyone in the sports world. And it is difficult sometimes to judge sometimes whether the amped-up pace of reporting and availability of platforms is helping us shovel out news faster, or just encouraging us to lower our standards – probably a bit of both.

Still, there’s no substitute for the way a generous use of Twitter can draw followers inside an athlete or coach’s head for a time, occasionally parking the odd thing called a hot story.

Of course, giving players an instant platform also buys journalists some pushback.

When the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard got tired of stories in the local paper speculating about his possible free agency more than a year away, he called out the Orlando Sentinel on his own Twitter feed.

“Y does it seem like the writers of Orlando sentinel are tryna push me
out of Orlando with dumb articles,” he tweeted on Monday. “I’m not blaming the media. I’m saying stop with the dumb articles.”

As the drama over the NFL lockout negotiations grew in mid-February,
Houston Texans right tackle Eric Winston couldn’t help tweeting, ““The
NFL has reached that point where the kitchen sink is getting opened and
every ridic claim will be tossed out. Enjoy the comedy people.”

And who can forget the $25,000 tweet Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco sent during a pre-season game complaining about the heavy hits (signed with the hash tag #Tylenolplease – wonder if he had an endorsement deal?). Unfortunately for Ochocinco, there’s a league rule against tweeting during a game – even one in preseason.

Twitter is doing for professional sports what all social media eventually does – evening the playing field, so to speak. Coaches, owners, teams and leagues can pass all the rules they want about Twittering, Facebooking and more; their jacked-in players will still send angry messages when the food at training camp sucks and people show up late for team meetings.

And I, as a proud consumer of gossipy sports tidbits, wouldn’t
have it any other way.

Yes, many athletes’ pathological focus on themselves makes their Twitter feeds predictable and mildly irritating – as they presume the world is salivating over accounts of their trips to The GAP or transparent attempts to pick up groupies online.

Still, these feeds also occasionally give us an honest look at some real emotion from those who play the game.

Maybe we should tone down the snarky columns when some kid crosses the line and just listen to – or read – what they’re trying to say. 

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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