It’s always been difficult for athletes to avoid controversy on social media. With the world at their fingertips, hundreds have made comments or thrown temper tantrums that have helped them alienate teammates, fans and front offices, who have forced them to make humiliating apologies or run them out of town.
Through this election season, and during the nationwide protests for social justice, many athletes were criticized for wading into politics. That can cause problems in a locker room, but there’s also the good, old-fashioned dissension — when a player isn’t happy and he (or someone close to him) lets the world know.
Giants wide receiver Golden Tate, peeved that the offense isn’t using him enough, caught a touchdown pass, then screamed into the camera on Monday night, “Throw me the ball!” That, alone, is likely to cause problems for the Giants, who don’t need Daniel Jones — their confused, young quarterback already making silly throws — believing he needs to keep a mouthy veteran receiver happy.
But Tate wasn’t done: His wife, Elise, complained about her husband’s targets and playing time on Instagram, firing up fans, many of whom are disappointed the Giants didn’t unload Tate before Tuesday’s trade deadline.
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Elise Tate’s posts are just the latest example of an athlete — or their family members — creating unnecessary trouble for an organization. Similar to Miko Grimes’ infamous social media rants when her husband, Brent Grimes, was playing for the Miami Dolphins, Elise Tate’s posts could demand the Giants fix the problem – one way or another.
This is a volatile issue that teams have been dealing with since social media began.
Social media platforms give athletes the chance to improve their individual brands, interact with fans and boost their endorsement portfolios. But, the sites have also become a gateway to disaster for high-profile stars.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have served as dumping grounds, archiving every post players have made throughout their online history. Recently, athletes like Eagles linebacker Nathan Gerry and Brewers pitcher Josh Hader have been haunted by racist and insensitive tweets from their past.
So it begs the question: why haven’t teams and player representatives taken the precautions to remove their embarrassing history from the web? A simple delete could save the organizations and their players a boatload of backlash.
The answer to the dilemma isn’t simple. NJ Advance Media polled a group of insiders that included a former NFL general manager, a player and coach agent, a former player and an athlete marketing rep, who said ultimately there’s a fine line when it comes to deleting the past before it rears its ugly head into the present.
Former Bills general manager Doug Whaley told NJ Advance Media that the NFL and NFLPA take the necessary steps to prepare players, especially rookies, for the dangers of social media. But, Whaley says it’s on the players to heed the league’s warnings when it comes to their social posting history and beyond.
The NFL and its players’ association “do a great job of giving players access to programs to deal with a lot of the issues that they’re going to have to deal with as professional athletes,” Whaley said. “Do they all use them? That’s up to the player. And even the programs that are mandatory, do they sit and listen and try to learn? Again, that’s up to the player.”
When Whaley became Bills GM in 2013, he and his staff realized the potential pitfalls that could come with social media. The executive and his front office staff employed a social media scrubbing service to prepare themselves for potential problems down the road.
“What we realized is that players know that to increase their brand, they have to be on social media,” Whaley said. “So, we started employing a service that used social media scrubs, so we would be aware of anything in the past that we might need to know about or to ask about in pre-draft interviews.”
The service paid off during Whaley’s tenure. The former GM noted that two high-profile players — who still play in the league — had major social media red flags during the pre-draft process.
One player had an alarming altercation caught on video on social media. That video eventually surfaced following his selection in the draft. Another prospect had some “concerning” videos from his high school days surface in a scrubbing search. That video has yet to see the light of day, fortunately for the player.
The Bills passed on both players, partially because of those social media scares.
“We employed someone who we thought was very good to be able to dig and get the best information, and we’re glad we did,” Whaley said. “Fortunately for the players, it hasn’t affected their careers or their standing in society.”
While Whaley and the Bills passed on both players, the team did interview one of them during a pre-draft visit.
Whaley says completely dismissing a player because of their high school postings isn’t always the right move for a franchise. That’s why teams conduct follow-up interviews with players when questionable material pops up in their background searches.
“What was their mindset when they did the tweet in question? And then ask them what they’ve learned from that,” Whaley said. “Have they learned anything? Would they want someone to tweet that about them? Just get a general feel and try, as well as possible, if you can see if they’ve grown from it.”
When a player is added to a roster, and their social media scrub comes up with unfavorable results, teams have two options: ask the player to delete the sensitive material or prepare for a potential backlash down the road. Just because a player deletes a tweet, it doesn’t mean someone hasn’t already archived their mishap.
Whaley says the most important thing when addressing a player’s social media exploits, especially on potentially offensive subjects, is to understand how the team and player can prevent future mistakes.
“Everyone has been young and made mistakes before, so you don’t want to automatically discount a guy for a mistake,” Whaley said. “You also want to see if there are triggers that can lead this player down the road again, or triggers that he understands, that if he’s close, he needs to ask for help or seek help or he knows to turn away.”
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A slippery slope
Clinton Reyes, the executive director of King Sports and Entertainment, has been managing athletes for a decade. Reyes handles marketing for the likes of Seahawks safety Jamal Adams, Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White and Raiders defensive end Clelin Ferrell.
During his career, Reyes has studied the positives and pitfalls of social media. That’s why he’s very picky when it comes to adding to his client list.
“We have a very high standard with how we select our clients,” Reyes said. “We definitely want disciplined young men that hold themselves to high standards, so when they do get to that next level, they’re screened.”
Part of Reyes’ background check involves social media study. Reyes has been lucky enough to avoid make-or-break moments with his clients’ social media exploits, but he has also turned down prospective clients whose public images fail to fit his company’s image.
When his company does come across an alarming social post for one of its clients, his advice is simple: luck favors the prepared.
“We search for keywords that could be derogatory, that could be offensive,” Reyes said. “Those things have come up in the past: guys using it in middle school, guys using it in high school, well before they even knew they were going to play football. Those things have happened, and we’ve had to eliminate those tweets and move on.”
Still, Reyes says it’s important to remember that his company can’t control its clients, much like teams can’t monitor their players every moment of the day. Marketing managers, agents and franchises can only advise their players.
“This is a delicate, slippery slope, too, because we can’t control anybody to do anything,” Reyes said. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, racially, politically, because those are individual choices.”
A whole new world
Agent Howard Shatsky has been around the NFL since 1989.
While he used to represent Pro Bowlers like former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan and former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, he has now moved on to representing NFL and college coaches.
The game has changed a lot since he was managing Strahan and Westbrook. Social media has added another element to the advising process.
“It’s something that you have to talk to most of your guys about,” Shatsky said. “You never want anybody to lose a lot of income because of something irresponsible that they put out on social media.”
But, the reality is that one stupid social post — made in the past or present — can cost an athlete or a coach his job. That’s why Shatsky prefers to tell his clients about mistakes made by others so he doesn’t have to clean up a mess himself.
“If you become prominent as a coach or an athlete, some reporter is probably going to take the time to go through your entire social media,” Shatsky said. “That’s the day and age we live in, so if you know that’s going to happen, eliminate that.”
Shatsky says college programs and NFL teams need to invest in preventative measures for the negative aspects of social media. One false move could cost a college program or an NFL franchise its star player or head coach.
“I was speaking with someone in the athletic department of a Division I school, and they have a person that has a computer program that searches for certain words,” Shatsky said. “They do that with their athletes to make sure nothing like that happens.”
The player perspective
The downside of social media doesn’t just come down to racist or inappropriate tweets. Sometimes, jokes can be harmful to a player’s image or locker room stability.
When former NFL defensive end Austen Lane arrived in Jacksonville as a fifth-round pick of the Jaguars in 2010, he was experimenting with Twitter early in the social media site’s existence.
The Iola, Wisconsin native was struck by how many Confederate flags he saw in Duval County. The culture shock led to a tweet that would have harmed Lane’s social standing if he pushed send this week.
“I think it was something along the lines of ‘Rocking the Confederate flag is like rocking a Chicago Cubs hat, where you guys haven’t won in forever, why are you celebrating?’” Lane told NJ Advance Media. “Obviously, that was more of a jab to Cubs fans, because I’m a Brewers fan, but it was also a jab toward the Confederate flag … I could never get away with that now.”
Lane also remembers a teammate getting in trouble with Jaguars’ management because of a tweet that was sent out during the 2012 NFL Draft. The organization had just selected punter Bryan Anger in the third round, and the locker room was frustrated by the decision.
Lane recalled a backup tight end speaking out on Twitter about the pick and facing the scorn of the organization shortly thereafter.
“We were all thinking it, like ‘Why are we drafting a punter in the third round?’” Lane said. “We all wanted to say something, and I think he took it upon himself to say something and tweet something out. Obviously, that got back to management, got back to the GM and the owner and I think he got into a little trouble off that.”
Lane, who now works in local radio in Jacksonville, has seen a slew of controversial tweets from athletes over the years, and he says those old posts can lead to serious talks among teammates.
“That’s kind of the world that we’re living in right now: everyone has receipts,” Lane said. “If a former teammate of mine or even a colleague now that I work with — if something got brought up back from high school that was either racially insensitive or just something I didn’t agree with — we’d have to have a conversation about it, no doubt.”
Lane says the biggest issue he’s noticed about athletes on social media is the rabbit hole that most players take with negative comments made about them. Far too often, athletes get themselves in trouble by addressing criticism with anger. That presents a big problem for the athlete, their representation and their employer.
One false tweet can lead to a big headache or worse. That’s why Lane thinks, ultimately, athletes should focus on the positives over the negatives when using a platform like Twitter or Instagram.
“The fact that you’re in the league, you made it,” Lane said. “You’re winning, and when you respond to people, that are maybe miserable or aren’t happy with you, and you try to cut them down, you’re going back down to their level and it makes zero sense to me.”
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