For the everyday college student, Twitter is the modern-day soapbox.
It is a place to express opinions, vent frustrations and share information. For most, it is raw, unfiltered thought, a forum for people to give their take on anything, often without consequences.
But for college athletes, the stakes are much higher. Often the highest profile students at their schools, athletes are seen as representatives of the entire institution. Twitter and other forms of social media might be a soapbox for them, but with one important difference.
When an athlete says something potentially inappropriate on Twitter, a lot more people take notice.
As a result, Twitter has meant trouble in recent years for some student-athletes at major universities. If athletes are getting attention for things they posted on Twitter, the publicity is rarely positive.
“Twitter has been both a blessing and a curse for anyone with a public profile, especially athletes,” said Jeff Fellenzer, who teaches Sports, Business and Media in Today’s Society at USC. “It allows you to connect directly with friends and fans, but the accounts are monitored now by mainstream media and team or school officials. This can be potentially damaging for athletes when they react with emotion and without a filter.”
The list of Twitter transgressions continues to grow. Last week, Auburn defensive back Jordan Spriggs reportedly attempted to solicit someone to write a paper for him. He tweeted: “man, who is good at writing papers?????????? I pay …”
Last year, University of Pittsburgh football player Elijah Fields was dismissed from the team for posting pictures of multiple bundles of cash on his Twitter account. One of the captions read: “Never knew Football was gon get me all this money. Sike I knew haha.”
Other examples include last year when Kentucky basketball player Josh Harrellson criticized coach John Calipari over Twitter. He was reprimanded and banned from using the social networking site. Mississippi State basketball coach Rick Stansbury banned his entire team from Twitter earlier this month because of a similar incident.
The majority of athletes’ tweets are harmless, but some, like the examples above, reflect poorly on schools. This has forced athletic departments and coaching staffs around the country to address the issue with their athletes. Some football programs, such as Boise State and Miami (Fl.) have banned athletes from using Twitter altogether while the season is in session.
USC, however, has no official policy regulating student-athletes’ Twitter use. Instead, like many schools, the university provides all new student-athletes with advice on how to use social networking sites appropriately. USC’s method is education rather than elimination.
“We believe students have First Amendment rights, that they are students and they do communicate through Facebook and Twitter and those other social media things,” said Tim Tessalone, the director of sports information at USC. “The main thing is that we say, ‘Be smart. Understand that because you’re a USC student-athlete, what you post on any of those types of sites has a greater impact than you might think.’”
Tessalone said there is always a chance the policy could change. But he also said the university understands that student-athletes will make mistakes.
“College is a time where you learn to make correct decisions, including what your online presence is,” Tessalone said.
Players’ Take on Twitter
“I don’t really post straight-up tweets, like ‘this is what I’m doing’,” Barkley said. “But it is a fun way to interact, and I have quite a bit of followers so I enjoy interacting with them and sharing similarities.”
Likewise, Riley enjoys seeing the enthusiasm from the fans, alumni and the student body.
“Fans are really passionate and they really take a lot of pride in their school. It’s always good for me to get back at fans and just have a cool conversation with them,” he said.
Barkley and Riley both agree Twitter provides them more control over their interactions with fans and others online.
“On Facebook, if you do something wrong, say you comment on someone else’s picture, all your friends are bound to find out what happened because it shows up on their news feed,” Riley said. “[On Twitter] you can have it be private.”
Barkley and Riley understand they are high-profile figures. They are both very selective about what they post online.
Riley went so far as to say he treats it like he’s talking to the media, which, in a way, he is.
“We’re in L.A., we’re in a social media market,” Riley said. “So whatever you say, everyone is going to find out. So you must be able to represent yourself with character.”
Barkley said he thinks a lot about what he puts online.
“[The other night] I was debating if I should even start telling people about my Risk game,” Barkley said. “I’ve definitely held back on posting certain things because it might provoke wrong thoughts.”
Both players said their respective schools and athletic programs have talked to them about the need to exercise caution.
“Once incoming freshmen stepped foot on campus, we had a meeting,” Riley said. “They were talking about the disadvantages and the advantages to having Twitter.”
Barkley said he sees the potential danger of USC’s loose policy, but prefers being held accountable for his tweets rather than restricted.
“It is kind of a risk they’re taking, but in the grand scheme of things we are responsible,” Barkley said. “They don’t tell us what not to do but they do guide us, tell us to be smart. We’re smart enough to realize that whatever we post could hurt not only us but the whole team.”
Riley said being aware of future repercussions was also essential.
“You must be aware of your surroundings, wherever you’re at,” he said. “This stuff could really hurt you at the end.”
Fellenzer said Twitter’s informal nature sometimes trips up student-athletes. It is easy for them to forget that what they say is being read by more than just their friends and family.
“Your emotions can really get exposed on Twitter,” Fellenzer said. “Once it’s out there, once one person can see it and re-tweet it, then it can still go viral.”
Riley knows firsthand how Twitter can get your name in headlines for the wrong reasons.
Last month, Riley tweeted: “congrats to Coach Mike Johnson for joining the UCLA program and becoming our Offensive Coordinator.” The school had not yet officially announced Johnson’s hiring, nor had it parted ways with current offensive coordinator Norm Chow.
Riley said he saw the headline announcing Johnson’s hiring on Scout.com, assumed it was a fact and “automatically posted a tweet.” Riley received a text soon afterward from a UCLA media relations person.
“They just told me we’re not associated with Scout.com, so anyone can put anything on the Internet [even if] it’s false information,” Riley said. “If coach Neuheisel doesn’t quote it, if it doesn’t come from his mouth, then it’s false.”
The incident ended up being a learning experience for Riley. A similar situation arose a few weeks later when he heard UCLA had hired Joe Tresey as its defensive coordinator.
“I wanted to say congratulations or whatever but I wanted to make sure it was actually accurate,” Riley said.
Once Riley saw the news on UCLA’s official page, it was like a green light. He immediately posted a congratulatory tweet.