- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Perhaps no one in college football understands the power of social media better than Aaron Murray.
Throughout his three seasons as Georgia's starting quarterback, Murray has been at the center of a seemingly endless array of Twitter brouhahas, ranging from salacious to saddening and from touching to hilarious. So, considering his audience of more than 80,000 followers, it made perfect sense when Murray decided to break news last Sunday with a quick tweet.
"Blessed to be the QB for the Dawgs, not ready to leave just yet. Time to get back to work and help lead this team to a championship," Murray tweeted, announcing that he will return for his fifth and final season at UGA.
Although he hadn't officially shared that news with any of his teammates or the media, Murray knew his informal method of announcing his decision would be sufficient to spread the word. And boy did it. A week later, the message had been retweeted more than 10,000 times, and who knows how many more people saw the news and shared the information with followers of their own.
"Social media's out of control, the way it spreads," Murray said last week. "You tweet and it gets retweeted, retweeted, and it's everywhere."
Murray saw no need for a formal press conference to announce his return when something that simple would get the word out.
"I thought it would be just something simple, and also I think my family members were getting killed with questions, especially my sister [Stephanie, also a UGA student] with people going up to her, like, 'Oh, is he coming back?' " Murray said. "So I thought I'd just get it over with, with a quick tweet, and let everyone know -- and I don't think I needed some big conference or anything like that."
Just a day after announcing his return, Murray's list of social media incidents grew when he -- like thousands of other fans who were watching Alabama thump Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship -- tweeted about Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron's girlfriend Katherine Webb, a model and former Miss Alabama, when she appeared on screen in the stands.
"AJ McCarron's girlfriend needs to become a Dawg fan," Murray tweeted, adding the common UGA fan hashtag "#dawgsontop."
While the fanfare over McCarron's girlfriend caused an uproar on the Internet, McCarron himself fired off amused responses to Webb-related tweets by players including Murray.
"[You] don't win enough bud!" McCarron told his fellow SEC quarterback.
Murray insists the whole thing was in good fun, but it's another example of how quickly messages can go viral. As of Sunday afternoon, Murray's tweet about Webb had been retweeted slightly more than his announcement about returning for his senior season. And the responses to his and McCarron's "beef" were so numerous that he had to turn off his cellphone because of the constant notifications.
"We were in meetings and I had to turn my phone off because it kept buzzing the whole time," Murray said. "So, yeah, it got out of control."
Such is life when you're a high-profile athlete in the Twitter age. Not only does seemingly everyone have the ability to contact players via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or other forms of social media, they also are ready to stand in judgment of any misstep.
So Georgia's athletics staff hammers home the point to players that they must be careful how they conduct themselves on those mediums. Some teams won't even allow their athletes to tweet during the season.
"They don't lay out concrete rules, but we have had meetings and training from before the season," redshirt freshman tight end Jay Rome said. "We've had them a couple times since I've been here, just to tell you how to handle social media and how to tweet and what to tweet and what precautionary measures to take before you actually push that send button for everybody to see."
Murray agreed, saying he always tries be mindful of his audience before posting.
"I have to make sure when I'm about to tweet something that I look at it and read it over and over again to make sure nothing is inappropriate and anyone can't think of any way that it's inappropriate. So I've got to be extra careful," he said. "But it's not a big deal. It's not like I really consider myself an inappropriate person in the first place. I don't think I'd be tweeting that kind of stuff even if I wasn't a starting quarterback."
As with other behavioral issues, Georgia coach Mark Richt only restricts his players' social media use when it's misused. Richt often says he believes in allowing players to have as normal a college experience as possible, until they violate that trust -- and those allowances include their behavior on social media.
"Some guys have had it shut down, or at least shut down for a season of time. But for the most part, it hasn't become problematic," Richt said. "It's just the way people communicate nowadays, so I don't want to sit here and just try to strangle that with our players. I want them to have a relatively normal life and I think it's more important to teach them how to manage it than to just shut it down."
Understanding that people -- recruits in particular -- use social media as a primary means of communication today, Richt's staff has waded into the Twitter waters, too. Somewhat.
Richt is not a particularly active tweeter, but USA Today recently noted that only two college football coaches -- LSU's Les Miles and Notre Dame's Brian Kelly -- had bigger Twitter followings than Richt. Georgia assistants like Bryan McClendon, Will Friend and Tony Ball have also set up accounts, although they don't exactly view Twitter as a necessity in their recruiting efforts.
"I just got down Facebook and now everybody does Twitter and something else," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo joked in December. "I think really it's just a means to get in contact with kids and it'll be something that we'll go to."
High-profile coaches and athletes have never exactly been anonymous, but there was a time when they didn't have to watch their every step, as they do now.
In many ways, the extra exposure is a blessing, but it can also be a curse.
"I talk to alumni all the time when we have alumni dinners in the offseason and stuff like that, and they'd tell us all the crazy stuff they would do when they were in college," Murray said. "If we did any of that now, it would be all over the Internet and pictures taken, and we'd be kicked out of school. But they were doing that stuff and they had no worries in the world because nobody had camera phones and you really couldn't get in trouble at all, and they did whatever they wanted.
"So it's just crazy how things have changed and how easy it is to whip out your phone, take a quick picture, tweet it real quick and someone retweets it, and bam, it's everywhere within minutes."
5hEric D. Williams