It didn’t take Alex Rodriguez long to learn the perils of social media.
Shortly after the New York Yankees infielder launched his Twitter account in late June, a fan welcomed him by writing: “(at)ARod got a Twitter? Will his account stop working in #October?”
It went downhill from there. Nine tweets into his Twitter career, Rodriguez posted an injury update that prompted Yankees general manager Brian Cashman to advise A-Rod to zip his Twitter lips.
Rodriguez is hardly the only athlete to struggle with the minefield of social media. Things got so bad for struggling Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez that he beat a tweet retreat, deactivating his account after an onslaught of fan abuse.
In the Bay Area, players know the feeling. Some have quit. (“It was a pretty devastating experience for me,” the Giants’ Barry Zito acknowledged last October.) And others such as the 49ers’ Kyle Williams have soldiered on through death threats.
Williams, the Warriors’ Stephen Curry, the Sharks’ Logan Couture and the Raiders’ Chris Kluwe were among the prolific local tweeters contacted for this story, and their warning is clear: The digital frontier is no place for the faint of heart.
What lures them in is a chance to engage directly with their fans. What drives them away, or sometimes makes them snap, are the so-called Twitter trolls—those who heckle, stalk or otherwise annoy in 140 characters or less, sometimes ruthlessly.
Williams got multiple death threats after his misplays helped seal the 49ers’ fate in the January 2012 NFC title game. Still, he never considered closing his account.
“I looked at it the way other people would look at it: ‘OK, he’s running from it,’ ” Williams said. “I think if I were to do that, it would have been kind of childish. You take what’s coming to you, and you move on.”
Giants first baseman Brandon Belt still embraces Twitter, but he learned the hard way that it’s nearly impossible for an athlete to stay out of the 140-character cross hairs. Belt made what he thought was an innocuous reply to a question about the Dodgers’ free agent spending at the Giants Fan Fest in February when he said, “You can’t buy chemistry.”
The tweet venom from Dodger Nation was so vicious (“(at)bbelt9 should learn to shut your mouth sometime” … “Hey (at)Bbelt9 can ya teach me how to Melky? #STEROIDS #CANTBUYCHEMISTRY #DODGERS”) that Belt avoided Twitter for weeks.
“Man,” he wrote at one point, “these guys are angry.”
HOW NOT TO HANDLE IT
If even cautious tweeters can make a wrong turn, imagine what happens to the reckless and unrepentant. Brandon Jacobs essentially tweeted his way out of a job with the 49ers last season by griping about his playing time and posting photos of himself from his better days with the New York Giants on Instagram. The 49ers suspended him for the final three regular-season games and then released him before the playoffs.
Jacobs’ path was so destructive that it’s now taught in seminars. Lee Gordon, who provides lessons to young athletes on successful social media strategies, puts up slides of Jacobs’ tweets as a way of scaring kids straight.
“We’ve kind of used that as our inaugural: ‘This can happen to you’ lesson regarding Instagram,” said Gordon, the director of corporate communications for 180 Media. “Here’s a guy that had the opportunity to go back to the Super Bowl again. Now, who knows where he’s going to go? Because when you Google his name, that’s what comes up.”
Tennis star Roger Federer was determined not to be that guy. He waited to join Twitter only after spending time studying how other athletes handled it.
“At the end of the day, it’s got to be something I need to feel comfortable with,” Federer told reporters at the French Open.
The very first response he received was an R-rated question about his personal life that prompted a story on deadspin.com. Welcome to Twitter, Mr. Federer.
“You’re always going to have that on the Internet … because it’s the Internet,” reasoned Kluwe, the Raiders punter. “If you’re putting yourself out there, people are going to say things that they would never say to your face.”
Kluwe said his life as an online gamer, where smack talk is de riguer, prepared him for the anonymous assaults he sometimes endures on Twitter. And it’s a good thing, too, because his political stances opened a door for tormentors that go beyond the usual, “You stink.”
Kluwe, who has little patience for filters, wrote a profanity-laden rant in favor of same-sex marriage in 2012. His literary style? The punter once told The New York Times that it “comes from the storied history of World of Warcraft forum boards. And in that context, the letter was actually really tame. I toned it down quite a few notches.”
Strange as it sounds, however, Kluwe urges his NFL brethren to be careful with Twitter. The punter said he reminds teammates that they’re representing the organization with each tweet. He said he urges them to think about each post “three times, and then maybe just one more time to be sure.”
“Avoid the hot-button issues,” Kluwe said. “Obviously, I didn’t do such a great job of that last year.”
HOW TO HANDLE IT
Because backlash is inevitable, the key for the 21st century athlete is learning how to handle hecklers—to turn the other tweet. Most athletes have developed that skill, anyway, having learned to tune out voices from the crowd during competition.
“I try to let it roll off my back,” Couture said. “There’s no sense in giving them what they want.”
“There are going to be some folks who are disrespectful and say crazy things, but I don’t pay attention to it,” said Warriors coach Mark Jackson, one of the most active pro coaches on Twitter. “There’s a beautiful thing called ‘to block’ or ‘to delete.’”‰”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, during a visit to San Francisco in May, said he likes Twitter because it actually reduces his friction with fans.
“So many people are interested in what I’m doing and why,” the six-time NBA MVP said. “When I’m on Twitter, I’m able to communicate with them. And I don’t feel as harassed by people when I answer questions.”
And when people come with nastiness rather than honest questions, it’s all about turning the other cheek. So says Gordon, whose social media classes have included former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, as well as recent 49ers draft picks Marcus Lattimore, Tank Carradine and Nick Moody.
“Never, ever directly respond to nasty tweets,” Gordon said. “You can’t win and won’t win a social media battle. Fans are quick to pop off all the time, but engaging with them only empowers them.”
The 49ers’ Williams has even managed to charm his tormentors. The receiver/return man said he’s been able to defuse the situation with something as lighthearted as, “C’mon, we’re all friends here.”
“I’m not afraid to interact and say something back,” he said. “There’s not any malice behind it. It’s playful. It’s joking around.”
And there are some athletes, the Raiders’ Kluwe included, who seem to enjoy the digital repartee. Count former A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy among those whose sharp wit allows them to engage freely in Twitter sparring.
When one fan posted a less-than-romantic overture to his wife, McCarthy responded with: “If only you could lure her into that dungeon you apparently live in.”
As McCarthy’s former teammate Josh Reddick points out, the out-in-the-open nature of Twitter is actually a safer social media option for most pro athletes.
“Guys like us kind of stay off Facebook,” he said.
TAMING YOUR AUDIENCE
Curry, the high-scoring Warriors guard, was disillusioned by Twitter at first. Sidelined by injuries for most of the 2011-12 season, Curry was kicked while he was down by angry fans.
“I’d go out with an ankle injury and all of a sudden I’d get a hundred tweets saying, ‘My fantasy team is done. You screwed my whole draft!’ ” Curry recalled with a laugh.
Curry snapped at a few tormentors before shifting strategies. Now he endears himself to his nearly 600,000 Twitter followers by offering them prizes, hosting online chats and posting behind-the-scenes photos to show off his family.
Last January, Curry asked fans to send him their trickiest H-O-R-S-E shot. The winner was from Philadelphia, so when the Warriors played the 76ers, Curry stopped by the kid’s house and tried the shot himself. (And, yes, he made it.)
“If you know anything about Steph, you know he’s not going to succumb to the trolls,” said Bill Voth, the co-founder of SpiracleMedia, which helps manage Curry’s massive social media profile. “We’ve never had to sit down and say, ‘OK, Steph. Don’t do this.’
“He understands that if you wouldn’t say it on camera, you shouldn’t say it on social media. But for some reason, with a lot of players, there’s a disconnect.”
Social media training is increasingly common among sports teams. Giants spokesman Jim Moorehead said young players get it as part of their orientation camp within months of being drafted. Then, every year at spring training, social media training is part the annual sessions that remind all players about what it means to follow “The Giants Way.”
There have short-lived Twitter existences (Zito and former Giants closer Brian Wilson to name two), but the team hasn’t had much controversy. The biggest misstep came when Pablo Sandoval blew the cover on Buster Posey’s season-ending broken ankle, making the announcement before team officials were prepared to do so. (See: Rodriguez, Alex.)
But many athletes say there’s no need for extensive training. It can consist of one easy sentence:
Don’t say anything stupid.
“If you take Twitter too seriously—on the fan side or on the athlete side—it can become something that is too much a part of your life,” Williams said. “I’ve never been one to take it seriously. It’s fun. It’s an app on my phone.”