“Ref in seattle just cheated the dynamo. What a joke. Not even close. Ref is a cheat” Not the usual ranting of a fan of the Dynamo after a controversial decision in an MLS game. No, this was a now-infamous tweet by Brian Ching, U.S. national team player and star of the Houston Dynamo, after he’d watched what he saw as some disgraceful refereeing of his MLS team on television. By the next morning, Ching — who perhaps had heard from his club’s Communications Department — had tweeted that “I apologize for the comment which i made in the heat of the moment. Everyone tries their best and mistakes happen.”
Major League Soccer later fined Ching $500 for his comments. Ching might have been the first to be fined for his outburst, but he surely won’t be the last — and if an MLS player with 1,800 followers can create such a stir, what on earth will happen during the Premier League season and the World Cup in the coming year?
Other major sports are already feeling the heat of this new, direct and largely uncensored connection between players and fans. In the NFL, the opening of training camp has led to a twittering storm (@TrentShelton “On my way to practice…thank God for waking me up this morning! U should do the same”), with Rick Maese in the Washington Post saying this means the league has lost control of its tight grip on the “image game”.
While athletes have used blogs the past couple of years, they say Twitter is quicker, more accessible and less likely to be filtered through agents, publicists or team officials before publication. From the perspective of both fan and athlete, that’s a good thing. But the National Football League is an image-obsessed league, routinely beset by athletes’ off-the-field antics. Twitter has already grown into a social media tool over which the league has little to no control.
Coaches and league officials are still attempting to control use of Twitter, but NFL players simply aren’t obeying. San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman tweeted: “Coach said we cant tweet in the blding so i called my lawyer and found a lupo [loophole] in that contract…tweeting outside yeaaaaa.”
When controversial Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco (you know, Chad Johnson) said he would tweet during games, the league reaffirmed its rule banning mobile devices from the sidelines — but Ochocinco (with 79,000 followers) tweeted back “Damn NFL and these rules, I am going by my own set of rules, I ain’t hurting nobody or getting in trouble, I am putting my foot down!!”
In American soccer, which hardly struggles from a case of over-exposure, it may be the case that almost all publicity is good publicity, and the direct connections for fans following the younger national team players have been a trend on Twitter all summer. Followers of Ching’s Twitter protested MLS’ $500 fine by good-naturedly raising $500 for charity to express their support for free expression for players. Such a connection is particularly important for fans of MLS, who receive little in the way of the insight into their team’s players’ lives from the mainstream media that other sports are already saturated with.
Down at the Confederations Cup, @FreddyAdu11 tweeted one day that “guys it is soo boring in south africa. we cant go out because of safety reasons so its train and hotel. someone please entertain me. anythin”
Young Americans like Adu, Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore see Twitter as a key way to connect with fans and develop their identities. Adu’s Twitter page features an image of him crashing towards the camera from the goal, and his bio simply reads “Attitude is EVERYTHING”. His followers are often directly appealed to (“all the advice is great guys. just know that im reading them all the time. I cant always reply to everyone but i am paying attention”), and Adu pushes them to help grow his following — “hey beautiful people wassup? tell all your friends to tell their friends whoever to follow me. I wanna get alot of followers. Lets get it”
Of course, this direct and instantaneous communication tool creates a nightmare for Communications Departments. Transfer news and roster selections have been leaked by players on Twitter many times already, creating an almost endless feedback loop examining in microscopic detail the meaning of hastily posted 140 character tweets. Young players are seemingly impervious to patient explanation of procedure and privacy before posting. An infamous case came in cricket last week, when one Australian dropped from the team tweeted the news long before an official announcement was scheduled.
Some have also begun to criticise the lazy journalism Twitter seems to encourage — tweets form the basis for stories before information has been verified with the team and with no direct contact with players to confirm stories. Still, at the same time, the mere existence of Twitter returns us (if in a virtual, 140-character-limited-way) to the days of less guarded conversation between players and journalists and fans that existed before tight controls limited access and sponsor appearances or press conferences dominated what barely constituted dialog.
It will be interesting to see how the Premier League reacts this summer if Twitter catches on there as it has in other leagues and sports. And fans will undoubtedly have a unique insight into next summer’s World Cup from tweeting, perhaps to the chagrin of Fifa, team officials and sponsors — raw, 140 character bursts mainly of inanity but occasionally insight that cut directly through the walls players have increasingly had put around them to protect their images in the past three decades. What might Ronaldo have tweeted in the locker room before the 1998 World Cup Final? Or Zidane in the minutes after his infamous headbutt?