Gilbert Arenas, athletes still causing Twitter headaches

Likewise for the deluge of regrettable tweets by athletes and coaches, like the ones that brought Orlando Magic guard Gilbert Arenas an NBA fine Wednesday and brought criticism to New Orleans Saints halfback Reggie Bush last month.

What we don't know, and what coaches, teams and leagues are scrambling to figure out, is how to deal with a medium built upon spontaneity.

"Twitter was especially designed to be the world's most promiscuous communication medium," says Robert Thompson, Professor of Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "Forget the editorial process, forget a second draft, and forget simply a second thought. It just comes out."

But the pitfalls of Twitter are nothing new in sports. As early as 2008, pro and college players were being fined or suspended for their 140-character missives. Yet some athletes have endured Twitter backlash on more than one occasion, including Arenas.

So why can't athletes avoid the trap?

"That's like asking 'Why does a guy keep lining up on the wrong side of the formation?' " says former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon. "It's because they're just not thinking."

But social media researchers say there's more to it. Homero Gil de Zuniga, assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Journalism, points to an aspect of human-computer interaction that makes tweeting a socially risky undertaking.

"The misuse of Twitter is due to a lack of understanding of the power of social media," says Gil de Zuniga. "If you were in the middle of a public square, you wouldn't yell something you might post on Twitter. But in reality, when you tweet, that's what you're doing.

"That's hard to understand when it's you and a keyboard. There's a sense of intimacy and to some degree anonymity. It doesn't feel like you're talking to 2 million people."

That might explain why Arenas tweeted June 1 that he would be "direct sexting in no time" and comments that could be interpreted as sexual innuendo.

Or why Bush tweeted last month that he was enjoying the NFL lockout: "Right about now we would be slaving in 100 degree heat, practicing twice a day, while putting our bodies at risk for nothing."

Bush endured fan backlash and later tweeted that he was only kidding.

Arenas tweeted Wednesday that he was fined for his actions, but did not specify which tweets were in question. Arenas had just rejoined Twitter on May 31, the night of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, after he quit the social website in the wake of his January 2010 suspension by the NBA relating to his felony gun possession charge, and the following tweet:

"i wake up this morning and seen i was the new JOHN WAYNE. lmao"

Orlando Magic spokesman Joel Glass declined Wednesday to reveal the offending tweet or tweets or the fine amount. The NBA declined to comment.

Erik Qualman, author of a best-selling book Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business on the impact of social media, says the youth of the average tweeting athlete helps explain why players get into hot water.

"You're talking about a younger generation, Generation Y, whose interpersonal communication skills are different from Generation X," Qualman says. "The younger generation is more comfortable saying something through a digital mechanism than even face to face."

Qualman explains that athletes such as Bush, who are constantly in the news media spotlight, don't have their guard up when tweeting.

"He's always been in the spotlight," Qualman says. "So when he's in front of reporters he puts the filter on. But then when you're tweeting you don't put up that mental block."

But avoiding reporters is one of the reasons athletes flock to Twitter.

Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely sees Twitter as a way to connect with fans on a previously unreachable level.

"It gives us the ability to not have to go through the media," Feely says. "You get the opportunity to not go through a writer, whose going to write the story the way he wants to write it. You have the chance to create your own narrative. "

Leagues on the lookout

The risk is something teams and leagues are struggling to come to terms with. More than half of NBA players have Twitter accounts, according to USA TODAY research. In the NFL, more than 1,000 players spread across 32 teams maintain active accounts.

The popularity of the medium forced the NBA to draft policies concerning when and how employees can use Twitter. In 2009 the league drafted a social media policy that prohibits players from posting to social media sites 45 minutes before a game until media leave the locker room postgame. The NFL adopted a similar policy in 2009. The NHL is working on a policy now.

"There are players that use it judiciously and those that don't," says Julie Fie, VP of communications for the Phoenix Suns. "We keep our fingers crossed when we say that nobody's crossed the line. I won't be surprised if something like that happens."

Major League Baseball, which has just over 200 tweeting players, does not have a Twitter policy, but it did set a precedent by fining Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen two games and $20,000 for his bitter tweets after being kicked out of a game in late April.

In the college ranks, where tweets have brought suspensions upon numerous athletes, several coaches have decided to ban social media among players.

At Mississippi State University, men's basketball coach Rick Stansbury instructed players not to use Twitter last season after a player criticized the team's performance in a postgame tweet.

"Twitter has allowed the outside world to come into your locker room," Stansbury says. "I think that's affected coaches' ability to keep things in-house and to build team unity and togetherness."

He says his ban on Twitter isn't permanent.

"I think it's based on the maturity of the team," he says. "Some players don't show enough maturity to understand that they can't take back what they say and the world sees it."

Stansbury's stance is an increasingly popular one. Boise State and North Carolina are among the football programs that have banned Twitter.

"If I were a head coach … my temptation would be to say, 'Look, we can't have you out there spewing whatever you're thinking at any given time,' " Thompson says. "On the other hand, I don't think people should be allowed to tell other people what technology to use ."

Miami football coach Al Golden weighed both sides of the argument when he inherited a Twitter ban by previous coach Randy Shannon. A tweeter himself, Golden sees social media as a teaching tool.

"Everything that we're trying to do is about empowering the kids," Golden says. "Rather than have systematic control, I would much rather say to them, 'Look guys, I know everybody in your age group does this. Just understand that you're a little bit different. People are going to be watching you.' "

But such a stance can create a nightmare for public relations departments who seek to control the message. In the NBA and NFL, newcomers are lectured on the dangers of social media at educational rookie camps in the preseason. In college, some programs turn to outside consultants to monitor social media use among students, alerting coaches and staffers of missteps.

This sort of institutional control will soon mean tamer tweets, and less fun for the voyeuristic public, Thompson says.

"Among sports figures there's going to be a progressively more careful and sophisticated and managed way that they go about doing this," he says. "The longer this stuff is around, the more filtered it will eventually be and it will be a lot less fun to follow them.

"Enjoy it now."