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Friday, February 3, 2012
Athletes can tweet their way into fans' lives

By Jane McManus

Mark Herzlich is an athlete with a Twitter account. On Monday, the Giants linebacker sent a tweet that shows why having a social media presence matters.

"2 yrs ago I was told I might never walk again. Just WALKED off plane in Indy to play in The #SuperBowl. #TakeThatSh*tCancer."

Gets you, doesn't it?

Those 140 characters -- sent just after the Giants touched down in Indianapolis -- packed power that probably hasn't been harnessed in half of the long-form features written about an illness that nearly took Herzlich's life and derailed his NFL future.

Nearly.

His voice is authentic and immediate, and who cares if he's deviating from the Queen's English.

Yes, athletes can get into trouble using Twitter, Facebook or any other kind of digital space that acts as a microphone and microscope at the same time. Leagues teach rookies the dos and don'ts of social media, but that doesn't mean it's for everyone.

Fernando Perez, 28, was a major league baseball player when Twitter was gaining popularity in 2008. He watched as minor leaguers picked up 40,000 followers overnight after being called up. He's seen players who have their management teams tweet on their behalf or, more likely, their sponsor's behalf.

"I would tell my guys not to do it if I'm an agent," Perez said. "Where is the reward and why are you actually doing it?"

Perez, who announced his plans to retire from baseball via Twitter, doesn't see the upside for former teammates who are really in the spotlight.

Despite this curmudgeonly take, I'd suggest that Perez is a perfect social media guru for professional athletes everywhere -- he gets the pitfalls -- and his @outfieldrambler account discusses poetry and baseball with equal reverence.

Even though Twitter looks really easy, it's not. Just ask NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne, who learned the hard way that breastfeeding has some pretty vocal advocates.

A Twitter audience may seem intimate, but athletes aren't just talking to friends and teammates. Their tweets are being read by the television exec trying to find the next generation of analysts, fans who may be a little too adoring and moms -- maybe their own mom.

Being yourself without alienating people is tough, but it's worth it. There is really nothing better for fans than feeling some kind of interaction with their favorite athlete. To feel like they are heard.

The best athletes on Twitter -- as Herzlich shows us -- are authentic.

Having a media team tweet out your charity events and sponsorship deals is easy -- I once saw a tweet come across from Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez's account as he was handing off the football during a practice -- but it doesn't actually constitute participating in social media. It's about interaction. A lot of people tweet athletes to tell them they are heroes. Said heroes also will get tweets about how much they suck.

So if athletes want to be part of social media, they need to develop thick skin. Tiki Barber, the unpopular former Giants running back, tried Twitter, but didn't stay. He said he left because he felt hemmed in by all the brevity, but maybe he didn't like how easy it was for total strangers to YELL AT HIM IN ALL CAPS.

Look at Chad Ochocinco and Arian Foster, two NFL players who seem totally comfortable in their skin. Ochocinco has used Twitter to invite fans to impromptu dinner parties. A very Zen Foster gives fans a hard time for including him on fantasy rosters. When ESPN The Magazine tweeted athletes to find out their favorite pregame meals, Foster tweeted back a cheeky "Baby goats."

Foster challenges his detractors, as though to remind them he is a real person and not some celebrity punching bag.

Female athletes get a different kind of scrutiny. Take Notre Dame basketball player Skylar Diggins. With more than 114,000 followers on Twitter, the college student attracts attention for her play and her appearance. Even Lil' Wayne took notice last winter as the Fighting Irish advanced to the Final Four.

Recently Diggins lamented via Twitter that most of the tweets hitting on her are pretty generic. Clearly, a digital native. Diggins has a reach, and for sports that aren't as popular as the NFL, her ability to thrive in social media raises interest in women's basketball.

Perez would like to see athletes be given a little slack on Twitter. A comedian can make a joke, but Perez sees that athletes have to walk on eggshells. He would argue that you can't ask players to open up their world only to parse every word. (Although he would advise that no one tweets after 11 p.m.)

Yet here is the upside. A corporate tweeter who is an athlete, with a big name, can have 100,000 followers. Instead of tweeting info about the latest line of sponsored cell phones, that athlete could use the same space to explain his or her passion for a particular charity.

Athletes can increase their marketability by being charming and witty. It's not for everyone, but the access is tremendous for fans. If tweets could be framed, all those tiny interactions would certainly be hung up in family rooms everywhere.

So my advice to athletes? Do it. Because a tweet like Herzlich's leaves a deeper impression than 140 characters usually make.

One last request: Please chill on the inspirational quotes. Yeah, yeah, I can be all I want to be. I know.