Barry Zito

NFL, ESPN behind the times with Twitter stance

With the NFL coming out this week and putting its collective foot/shield down on the whole Tweeting-athlete phenomenon, the dominant professional sports league in the United States took a step back towards the rest of the pack.

Then the self-professed World Wide Leader in Sports did the same thing, with an memo detailing how ESPN employees were hereby disallowed to tweet any breaking news or anything else sports-related.

The general usefullness of social networking sites is debatable; for every amazing connection made there are hundreds of updates on what people just purchased or consumed at Starbucks. However, there’s no denying that these sites — and Twitter in particular — are not only here to stay, they’re also the absolute fastest way for news and updates to reach the masses.

It’s also the easiest way for athletes to control the message, which is where the NFL comes in. NOBODY controls the message better than Roger Goodell and Co., the closest thing professional sports has to the military. After athletes started complaining about everything from Mike Vick’s suspension to training camp food (and more importantly, the mainstream media started picking up these complaints and running with them), the NFL slammed the door on all social media that could be considered hurtful to the NFL’s image.

On one hand, anybody who’s ever had a job knows it’s a bad idea to bash an employer or otherwise embarrass them publicly, either during or after one’s tenure with that company. The NFL and ESPN have the right to control how their employees interact with the public, and nobody’s disputing this.

However, even if you regard Twitter as a way for non-writers to feel like writers in our increasingly ADD-driven society, it’s the most important and well-known piece of technology this year. And technology, like civil rights, never goes backwards. Twitter may sound dated or even be nonexistent in five years, but there will always be ways for people to transmit status and/or news updates instantly.

Contrast the NFL and ESPN (both considered the dominant, albeit mechanical, giants of the sports industry) with how the NBA and pretty much every other news out let have handled the Twitter phenomenon. Would anyone besides hardcore hoop-heads even know who Charlie Villanueva was if it weren’t for Twitter?

While some athletes might only use Twitter as a flirtation device (like when I was in Vancouver and caught Dwight Howard putting the fullcourt press on Venus Williams by flexing his muscles and asking if she was on Twitter), stars who are tired of being misquoted and/or misrepresented by the “mainstream media” are excited for a chance to further their fame, better connect with fans and compete with each other (for followers). For some (like Barry Zito and Brian Wilson), it isn’t always successful, and ends up giving fans and media members a better opportunity to find fault. For guys like Shaq and Chris Bosh, Twitter has done as much in the last year to build their respective brands as anything they’ve recently done on the court.

In ESPN’s case, they’re going to either have to produce their own Twitter-esque website, or risk getting scooped on a daily basis. Sad as it was, all the baseball fans who checked MLB Trade Rumors every ten minutes during the last week of July were getting the majority of their news from beat writers’ Twitter feeds.

Ric Bucher, a serial tweeter, is nearly catatonic after hearing that he’d need to either write a full column or get his hair TV-ready every time he wants to broadcast a rumor. And who can blame him? Texting and tweeting all day on one’s Blackberry is a lot quicker, and there’s no editor around to bitch about minor details like source verification.

And, it’s the wave of the future. Everyone’s gone from wondering what the hell Twitter is to bashing it to swallowing their pride and diving in. Now that people are realizing what the advantages and constraints of the medium are, the site has turned into a media PR tool, as opposed to a way for celebrities to reach out and touch the common folk.

Rest assured, a site which allows athletes and other celebs to communicate even better with their fans than Twitter does will come. And a better site for reporters to break news will come as well. There’s no stopping technology, as much as the NFL or ESPN would like to try.

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