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Friday, May 6, 2011
Don't blame Twitter

By LZ Granderson
ESPN.com

Not long after news of Osama bin Laden's death swept across the country, sparking spontaneous celebrations in the streets of New York and Washington, D.C., Rashard Mendenhall went to Twitter to ask, "What kind of person celebrates death?"

In and of itself, it's a great question.

Given the context -- and timing -- in which he asked it, well, let's just say he has Twitter remorse. Especially when he followed that question with "We've only heard one side."

Since then, Mendenhall has tried to clarify the intent of his tweet, but that didn't stop Champion from firing him from his endorsement gig. And the Steelers issued a statement saying "The entire Steelers organization is very proud of the job our military personnel have done and we can only hope this leads to our troops coming home soon."

Of course, Mendenhall didn't say anything about the troops.

He was mainly questioning our sense of morality.

Rashard Mendenhall
Rashard Mendenhall has experience in front of other people's microphones. Now he knows what he says from his personal podium can resonate just as widely.

But it's obvious that the franchise felt the need to respond quickly to avoid further alienating the fans offended by Mendenhall, who now joins Michael Beasley, Cappie Pondexter, Carmelo Anthony and others as athletes who have tweeted themselves into hot water.

The faux pas are so frequent that some fans and pundits are wondering whether teams should contractually prohibit athletes from using social media, or at the very least be allowed to edit statements before their most visible spokesmen make them public. Honestly, I can't think of a more ridiculous conversation.

Where was Twitter when the Orioles' Luke Scott announced he was still a birther -- even after the White House released President Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate? Where was Twitter when Tim Hardaway went on his "I hate gay people" rant? John Rocker didn't get into trouble 10 years ago for anything he said on Facebook. Michael Jordan didn't tweet "Republicans buy sneakers too."

The problem isn't Twitter.

The problem is that every time an athlete reveals something personal, we like him or her less. Or at least that's the potential.

When our athletic heroes are empty vessels leading our favorite teams to a win, we can imagine anything we want about them: that they think like us, value the same things we do, would be cool to hang out with, maybe even be our friend. The less athletes say, the more we tend to assume they're good guys, as if a postgame sound bite is a gateway to the soul. And then we read an investigative piece about a player such as Marvin Harrison and we're floored.

The problem isn't Twitter. The problem is that as soon as athletes take to Twitter or give an interview or use any form of communication to share personal information or how they think, they run the risk of ruining our fantasy. In 140 characters or less, we are confronted with this harsh reality: We don't know these people.

Not really.

We can gather from their performance on the field, court, etc., whether they might be egotistical or can handle pressure, but that doesn't tell us how they feel about God or women or the tea party.

Some sports fans don't want their athletes to talk about anything other than sports. Some fans don't want the columnists on this site to talk about anything other than the box score.

I do not write for those sport fans. And many athletes are blissfully unaware of that line until they stumble across it and into the negative reactions.

That's because the world isn't made of neat, compartmentalized chunks but rather is one big mess. As Phil Jackson said: "Not only is there more to life than basketball; there's a lot more to basketball than basketball."

iPhones
All that's needed to broadcast one's thoughts is access to a phone.

Athletes such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning make excellent pitchmen because they are empty. OK, not really empty, but they have managed to keep enough of their private thoughts and lives out of the spotlight to avoid being connected to anything remotely controversial. Anything that could cause a segment of their fan base to pull away. People unfairly assumed that because Jordan was black and from the South, he would do all he could to get Jesse Helms and his racist legacy out of office. Back then, we fantasized that Jordan was something he wasn't. So when he didn't give an endorsement to Helms' opponent, it tarnished the way he was viewed by some for many years. In fact, when Helms died in 2008, Jordan was still answering for remarks he had made in the 1990s.

Tim Hardaway
Tim Hardaway didn't need Twitter to offend people. He has since used his visibility and access to media to make amends.

"What I said was true," he said. "Republicans buy sneakers. And usually full retail. But I've since realized that there are more important things than money, or market share or the Jordan brand."

Earlier this week, Rocker announced he was writing a memoir to show he's not the boor he was revealed to be in a Sports Illustrated story that ran more than 10 years ago.

Hardaway's legacy will include his homophobic comments, even though he quickly apologized and has since worked with organizations that help gay youth.

None of this started with Twitter.

As long as there are media outlets -- be they social or corporate-run -- there is a chance an athlete is going to say something that rubs people the wrong way. Words that show he is not who we had thought or hoped he was.

Mendenhall ticked a lot of people off with his tweet, but he actually earned more of my respect. Not that I agree entirely with what he said, but he had the guts to be more than a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He dared to be human.

If sports teams are so concerned about their employees making statements that could hurt the business, then instead of instituting some sort of knee-jerk response to Twitter, they should take media training more seriously. They should require their athletes to take sensitivity training proactively, as part of their preseason regimen and not retroactively as a punishment for something they've said. That doesn't mean athletes should become mindless quote zombies or that media training will prevent them from saying something controversial. But at least equip them with a better understanding of how to best represent their personal brand and the company. If they still say something insensitive or just plain stupid … well, let the chips fall however they may. But at least the teams will have tried.

Targeting Twitter because it's the communication tool du jour is like giving a thirsty man a glass of wine.

Besides, I like athletes on Twitter.

They give away tickets and birthday shout-outs to fans. Twitter empowers them to show they are more than just the sport they play, to show they have a sense of humor, are aware of the world around them and are not afraid to try new things, like ballet classes.

In other words, they are real people -- not product-pushing puppets or faces of the franchise, walking around without thoughts or souls. I remember the day I decided to follow Aaron Rodgers on Twitter. It wasn't for what he tweeted but from what was in his bio: Son, Brother, Friend, QB. That told me there was a lot more to him than "The Belt."

There's more to all of our athletes than "The Belt," ring, trophy, banner … Do we want to hear it?

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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