The double edged sword of social media in the sports world

Is social media being used in all the wrong ways?

The national spotlight is something that many athletes at all levels of experience strive for. The fast paced development of social media in the sports world has given athletes of all calibers a voice, so that they can express themselves thoroughly. However, this goal of stardom and being in the national spotlight comes with a price.

“I think what social media has done for athletes is that it gives a lot of athletes a way to show fans who they really are. So they talk about the music they listen to, the food they like, and TV shows or what they do with their family. And then to the fans that really fosters identification, because you can’t really identify with them in the sense of what they do on the athletic field, but man if you like the same food or listen to the same music,” Dr. James Sanderson of Clemson University said.

Sanderson discussed and shared a few stories of times where a professional athlete has used social media to benefit others or impact a community in a positive way. Brandon Phillips, second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds was asked on social media by a young child to attend his little league game, a request he made good on. While Kevin Durant, forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder, tweeted that he was bored and he didn’t have anything to do. An Oklahoma state student tweeted at him saying they were having a flag football game on campus, which Durant did in fact join in on.

Athletes have found themselves in the national spotlight for many things they might have done well on or off the field. But this isn’t always the case, as more and more athletes find themselves in the national spotlight for negative reasons. Athletes have now been opened up to both praise and scrutiny far beyond anything they were subjected to in the past.

“I don’t want to say social media is in one way good or bad, because I think it’s like a lot of things in life, it’s a matter of how you use it. I mean are there risks with it, absolutely there are, but there are risks in everything we do,” Sanderson said.

Recently, various news agencies have reported several instances involving athletes, in which these athletes are scrutinized for things they have said or things that have been posted to social media. This media attention has raised these isolated cases to the national forefront, causing some to question if social media is doing more harm than good to sports.

One such incident that took place in 2013, was a recording from a cell phone of Riley Cooper, starting wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles. While he was at a Kenny Chesney concert during the NFL offseason, Cooper was recorded saying explicit and racial slurs towards the camera. Warning, the following video contains NSFW language, including an explicate racial slur.

Riley Cooper, starting wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles. Video Courtesy of TrendingSportsNews found on Youtube.

Another incident in the news and therefore the national spotlight as well, involving a negative statement from an athlete using social media was of Bloomsburg University first baseman Joey Casselberry. Casselberry was removed from the team almost immediately, for an offensive tweet he posted about Little League Baseball all-star pitcher Mo’ne Davis.

Former Bloomsburg University first baseman Joey Casselberry’s Twitter account and offensive tweet before being deleted.

The NFL situation involving Riley Cooper is expected to be in the national spotlight, as athletes at that level are professional athletes and expected to be role models, and to simply lead by example.

However, Bloomsburg University for almost all sports teams they offer, both men’s and women’s, is an NCAA division II school. With their wrestling program competing at the division I level. As the school is part the NCAA therefore has ties nationally, it does however operate at an overall lower publicity rate than a completely division I school, or a professional team would. Regardless, a simple social media post has catapulted this small Pennsylvania school to the forefront of the social media discussion nationwide.

Division I sports programs more so than division II, III or high school sports, due in part to having more available resources, have naturally put restrictions on their athletes even more so than before these such events were being reported. These negative situations through the use of social media and the Internet has made many division I schools very restrictive on how they let their athletes use these programs. As a result many student athletes at all levels of competition will be subjected to this monitoring more now than ever before.

“The school did say they’d do a background check, and that probably inquires tapping into my Facebook and Instagram stuff. But I think social media has kind of corrupted people a little bit; they have the power with it to say whatever they want without being face to face with someone,” Tristan Rifanburg, incoming freshman and Division I wrestler for Binghamton University said.

“I have Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat accounts. I used to post a lot more when I was younger, some people just get sucked into it, i guess I didn’t. I don’t really post things on Facebook. But Twitter, if I see something funny that someone says I’ll tweet back at them. Everyone tells you don’t put bad stuff on social media over and over when you’re growing up, so I try not to,” Frankie Garcia, incoming freshman and Division I wrestler for Binghamton University said.

“We just did a study where we looked at social media policies looking at division I, division II, and division III sports and it was interesting because they were all pretty consistently negative. Except at the division III level where there were one of two schools that took a very educational and proactive approach,” Sanderson said.

As the years pass, the younger athletes grow up, eventually entering into the competitive sports world of today. These athletes have grown up around, and sometimes been immersed in many forms of technology including social media, since they were just children. One would logically think this immersion of technology since a very young age would allow these individuals to be more conscious of how anything can simply go viral. However, because the technology industry and social media specifically is developing at such a rapid pace the learning curve is very high, therefore conscious education can sometimes lack.

“Twenty years ago, Casselberry can say that, or anything to his buddies while they're out at the bar, and no one ever is the wiser. But now they put it on their phones thinking its only going to their buddies, but you know it’s risky. Even with my own kid, I tell him you have to understand that one message can impact how everyone will view you the rest of your life. Whether that’s right or wrong, fair or unfair, that’s the reality of it,” Sanderson said.

SUNY Oswego has had a rich history in the athletics department. Oswego is a small division III state school in upstate New York. Oswego sees 23 out of 24 of their varsity sports teams play in the State University of New York Athletic Conference. The women’s ice hockey team at Oswego plays in the ECAC conference due to the sport not being offered by SUNYAC. All sports teams at Oswego are division III regardless of the conference difference. The Oswego men’s ice hockey team headlines the school, as it is its most prominent sports team due to its continued success over the years.

“I think we’d all see the same consequences if a situation did happen, but for a division I player it’d be more in the public eye than for a division III player would be. A lot of people don’t even know small division III schools. But I think social media can be good, but only if it’s used for the right reasons. At Oswego I feel like the spotlight is more on men’s teams, if they’re a good player on a good men’s team here, they’d still get in trouble obviously, but they’d push harder to defend him, that’s just how I feel,” Melissa Mulvaney, sophomore and shortstop for the Oswego softball team, said.

SUNY Oswego saw their first and only NCAA division III championship game come through the success of the men’s ice hockey, during the 06–07 season when they defeated Middlebury to win 4–3 in overtime. However, the Lakers have reached the championship game in various other years including the 1987, 2003, 2012 seasons and most recently during the 2013 season when they lost a close game at 5–3 to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. This championship and continued success of the program has put Oswego in the national spotlight somewhat for division III athletics, something the school isn’t all that used to.

The age of Internet use, and the use of social media is in full force now more than ever. Everything in today’s society seems to be put online now in some form. This doesn’t exclude smaller schools like SUNY Oswego.

Michael Bielak, Sports Information Director at SUNY Oswego talking about which social media his office uses and how.

“We have four social media accounts that we use including Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. They’re all monitored out of my office. Any team that creates their own Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account, I also have to monitor that. I have to know who’s controlling it and that way I know who to contact if something is posted, but we haven’t had a problem with our sports programs here since I’ve been here, they’re pretty good about it,” Michael Bielak, Sports Information Director at SUNY Oswego, said.

A media spotlight on a smaller school is very rare due to smaller schools generally not producing much headline national news. Despite some athletic successes in the past, Oswego would fall into this category of smaller schools. However, Oswego is located in the same city of the Palladium Times, Oswego County’s main newspaper. Oswego is also very closely located to Syracuse University, which is a division I school and produces a lot of media attention. Between these two media centers and the student run newspaper, the Oswegonian, this puts Oswego in somewhat of an uncommon situation.

“Depending on how bad a post was, it’s not out of the realm of possibility where something could happen where we have to remove someone from a team because of something they posted on social media,” Bielak said.

“One of our athletes was actually spotted on that Twitter account SUNY Party stories, but not in an explicit way where they knew it was exactly a student athlete. Throughout the next week you hear enough from people to know that that was so and so, and at that point you have to make the coach aware. That site So pushed people to out do eachother and therfore pushed this culture we’re in to try to be crazier. And that’s when it gets dangerous because you get people trying to do more stupid things,” Bielak said.

“This is what is really important regardless of everything else, social media is no different that the Internet, it’s not going away so you just have to understand the risks, work to minimize them and try to focus on using it in a positive way. We need to be proactive and learn from mistakes that have been made. I don’t know if we’ve done a good job with keeping pace and with educating so far,” Sanderson said.

Below is a link to a Storify that is composed of various twitter conversations I had with professionals on Twitter about the topic of social media in the sports world.