Commentary

Bears have mixed feelings on Twitter

America's most recent social media phenomenon a part of athletic culture

Updated: August 2, 2012, 5:43 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- It is the scourge of English teachers and coaches everywhere, 140-character blurbs capable of packing a wallop large enough to have cost professional athletes million-dollar endorsement deals, spots on the Olympic team and the respect of fans and teammates.

And yet, whether inane or profane, the power of Twitter rages on. The majority of Chicago Bears players subscribe to one of the most popular forms of social media for today's young celebrity to simply let us know how training camp is going, to kill time, to promote personal projects and, in the case of running back Matt Forte, to exert power in often powerless circumstances.

[+] EnlargeTwitter
Douglas E. Curran/AFP/Getty ImagesThe Twitter craze has given athletes a direct forum to communicate with both fans and media -- for better and worse.

On one hand, Forte will say "I'm not a big Twitter guy." But he will also admit that he used it to inject his voice into recent contract negotiations with the Bears, which yielded a four-year, $32 million deal, and perhaps just as importantly, he said, in order to control the news content regarding his career and health.

"It is a tool," Forte said Tuesday. "When the media puts out a lot of articles about you, nobody can tell people that it's right or wrong except yourself. So if they're going to put a story out there saying my knee is bad, I'm going to show the truth."

Forte was referring to a report in late May that said his contract dispute with the team involved concerns by the Bears over the condition of his knees. Forte responded with a tweet that read, "100Lbs sled up hill I think my knee will be OK." Accompanying it was a video showing the running back racing up a hill with a rope and sled attached to his waist.

Two months earlier, when the Bears signed running back Michael Bush to a four-year contract worth $14 million, including $7 million guaranteed, Forte, then still unsigned, also took to Twitter with his frustration.

"There's only so many times a man that has done everything he's been asked to do can be disrespected!" Forte wrote. "Guess the GOOD GUYS do finish last. …"

Later, he clarified by tweeting: "For the record I'm not mad at the signing of another running back. This is 4th time that's happened. I embrace competition as well as help … But as for not taking care of [your] own and undervaluing a player under his market value is another story!"

Asked if, in retrospect, he was sorry about the tweet, Forte said he was not.

"I don't regret it because I thought it out and said exactly what was on my mind," Forte said. "Some of the fans may not have liked it but I don't care. That was what was on my mind at the time. And I came back and cleared it up. … My thing was, stop wasting time and let's get it done."

Despite some blowback from media and fans, Twitter has largely been a positive for Forte. But he and his teammates have been reminded often how damaging it can be through examples of rants gone awry by Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and, just this past week, U.S. Olympic soccer goalie Hope Solo and banished Greek Olympian Voula Papachristou.

Papachristou, a triple-jumper, was kicked off Greece's Olympic team for a racism-tinged joke she wrote on Twitter that Greek officials felt mocked African immigrants and also expressed support for a far-right political party.

After expelling Papachristou from the Olympic team, the Hellenic Olympic Committee announced that all Greek athletes would be banned from using social media to express any personal opinions that were not related to the Olympics or in preparation for their own competition.

Solo, no stranger to controversy, created more when she ripped Brandi Chastain, one of the heroes and pioneers of U.S. women's soccer, for her mild criticism as a television commentator of the current Team USA.

While Chastain stayed above the fray, Solo's tweet required spin control from the U.S. coach, a team meeting to be called to talk about the group's image, a statement from NBC defending Chastain and further criticism of Solo from former U.S. players. Whether the outburst affects the team's performance in any way is doubtful, but even Solo would find it hard to say it was not a distraction.

In 2009, the NFL amended its policy for use of Twitter and other social media platforms by players, coaches and other team personnel on game days, prohibiting its use starting 90 minutes before a game until postgame media interviews conclude. Use of Twitter at all other times are allowed, though teams such as the Bears do not allow it during practice or team meetings.

"I think it's the reality of the world, you can't stop technology," commissioner Roger Goodell said during a stop at Bears camp on Wednesday. "I think we've tried to encourage our players to [use Twitter] but do it responsibly.

"One thing about technology is you have to be accountable for it. It's clear, there's evidence, so I hope players are starting to understand. It's a great technology and it's great for you and it's great for the fans, but you better do it wisely."

And when you don't, there is a price to pay. In August 2010, the league fined Chad Ochocinco $25,000 for possessing an electronic device and for posting messages on Twitter during the Bengals' preseason game against the Eagles.

More costly was the one-game suspension that cost then-Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson $213,000 in October 2009 for tweeting a gay slur.

Then in May 2011, Mendenhall lost an endorsement deal with Champion, with whom he had just signed a four-year contract extension, over Twitter remarks the player made criticizing people for celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden and also implying a 9/11 conspiracy.

Steelers president Art Rooney II quickly issued a statement distancing the organization from Mendenhall's statements. But in the wake of the Mendenhall controversy, the former Niles West High School star saw his Twitter followers rise from 13,631 to 36,914 in one day.

Last year on Twitter, running back Adrian Peterson likened the conditions of the NFL player to "modern-day slavery," drawing praise from Mendenhall and criticism from the Packers' Ryan Grant, who pointed out that slavery still exists in today's world and that Peterson's tweet was misinformed.

Bears coach Lovie Smith does not impose any special rules for using Twitter on his players. That could be in part because most of his team's veteran players are among its users, so Smith instead cautions them to be careful.

"If [Smith] was to tell me you can't do this, I'd probably cuss him out or something. You can't tell me what I can and can't do," Bears cornerback D.J. Moore half-joked. "We have the media relations people show us videos and talk to us about tweets and camera phones and stuff, so we get warned."

But Moore said Twitter disasters by other athletes would not necessarily prevent him from tweeting freely.

"If you feel good about it, say it," Moore said. "And if you say it and feel good about it, just defend it. Don't go back and say, 'I didn't mean to say this.' Be able to explain it if you're going to tweet it.

"[But] once you give your opinion on something real big, it can have a big backlash, so I leave that to the people on TV. I might have an opinion in my head, I just keep it to myself."

Bears offensive lineman Lance Louis said hearing about Mendenhall and the Olympic athletes had an impact on him and at least some of his teammates.

"At end of the day, all that says is keep most of your comments to yourself," he said. "Just because you feel a certain way about something doesn't mean you have to post it on the World Wide Web."

And for the most part, that opinion is shared by Bears players. Quarterback Jay Cutler, highly protective of his privacy with a new baby on the way and a celebrity girlfriend, recently deleted his Twitter account.

After joking around about team handball Thursday on ESPN 1000's "The Waddle & Silvy Show," Cutler said, "This is why I'm off Twitter, because I'd get crushed by handball enthusiasts."

Is there a chance he would go back to Twitter? "No, I'm done, that divorce is final," Cutler said.

Punter Adam Podlesh said he uses Twitter more to see what others are saying, rather than expressing his own opinions.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/David StlukaBears quarterback Jay Cutler recently deleted his Twitter account.

"I'm not active every day, as far as tweeting goes," he said. "I'll put some things out there every now and then, maybe just to have a gag or be funny or something like that, but nothing in a controversial sense. …

"It's fun. It's like another angle, actually being a part of the people you like to see. It's not quite like an US Weekly, but [celebrities] are actually tweeting and being a part of it and it's in real time, which is a cool thing and why it's so popular."

J'Marcus Webb is one of the most active tweeters among Bears players and jokes that he takes a lot of teasing for it.

"All the time, really," he said. "They'll say, 'Why would you even tweet that?' … It's just kind of a way to express myself in a different way. You see a guy with a helmet on, it's like, what are they thinking? What's going through their minds?' I kind of use it just like a funny, ha-ha type deal. It gives me something to do when I'm not studying or on the field."

Moore is one of the players who teases him.

"I'm not one of those guys who tweet everything, like, 'I'm eating a peanut butter sandwich,'" he said. "I interact with fans, wish people a happy birthday. If you say something to me, if it's on my timeline, I'll tweet it back to you. If you send me a direct message, I'll get back to you."

Matt Spaeth won't. The Bears tight end doesn't have a Twitter account.

"This last offseason, I had someone pretending to be me for a little while but it wasn't me," he said.

It's not that he is particularly anti-Twitter, per se.

"I don't know, I just think I lead such a boring life, why would someone want to follow me?" Spaeth said. "I don't get it. I guess there's a lot of perks to being on Twitter and having a lot of followers. But all you see on the news are people saying dumb things, and once you hit send, it's forever.

"I'm not really worried about saying something dumb, but I just would rather not do it. I mean, what would I say? 'Just got done with practice. Now I'm lying on my bed, watching TV.'"

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.