Osama bin Laden: He gone!!!!
The text came in on May 2, 2011, as I was watching President Obama confirm what the wire reports had already told us: Osama bin Laden had been killed by a heroic Navy SEAL Team 6. The country celebrated, with impromptu “USA! USA!” chants popping up in ballparks stretching from California to New York.
Then I received a text from an Astros player who was relatively new to Twitter.
“Can I tweet, ‘Bin Laden. HE GONE!!!!!’” he asked.
I laughed and assured him that it was fine, that it was a very American thing to be happy about this news, and that while normally it wouldn’t be a good idea to celebrate death on Twitter, for this, it was entirely patriotic and very appropriate.
While I found our exchange amusing, I also was glad that he took the extra measure to check in. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t about to say something that would reflect poorly on him and subsequently, on the organization, and I appreciated it. At that time, we had already constructed a code of ethics regarding social media, a four-page explanation that was included in the Minor League handbook. But we were still in the process of educating players on the Major League level as to what was expected of them if they chose to be active on Facebook and Twitter.
During my time overseeing the social media side of the Astros’ operation from 2009 to 2012, I encouraged players to embrace social media but made sure they understood they needed to be smart about it. The upside of Twitter is that it’s a great way to interact directly with the fans, which in turn can reflect favorably on a player’s marketability. But it can also be dangerous, since there’s no filter between the players and the public.
Twitter is based largely on knee-jerk reactions, which can spell trouble, especially for a professional athlete in the public spotlight. Basically, it’s a free-for-all, where a brief short-tempered moment can turn into public controversy, creating unnecessary headaches for the players and the organizations that employ them.
This was recently brought to light by an unfortunate lapse in judgment by Ian Stewart, an infielder in the Cubs’ organization who is currently playing for the club’s Triple-A team in Iowa. Through a series of tweets, mostly coming from exchanges with inquisitive followers, Stewart unleashed a lot of anger directed in large part toward Cubs manager Dale Sveum.
To state the obvious, the Cubs weren’t happy. Citing a “loyalty clause” in Stewart’s contract, the infielder has been suspended without pay. Terms of the suspension will be announced at a later time, after the Cubs get through the legalities of the process.
It goes without saying (and Stewart actually did say it later, through a string of repentant tweets) that he’d like to have those 15 minutes back. Surely, he’d have gone about things differently and just vented to a buddy over a beer, or called his mom, or simply seethed inwardly, unnoticed. You know, the way we used to complain about our problems during the stone ages of the early 2000s, before social media.
What happened to Stewart should serve as a cautionary tale to all players. There are a few fights you cannot win, one of which is taking on your organization through social media, especially when you have accomplished little, if anything, in the big leagues. (The other is criticizing the fans, especially about low attendance, but that’s a topic for another day).
During my time with the Astros, I had a chance to speak to a few of the Minor League affiliates during my yearly trips to check out the organization’s top prospects. We also held media training sessions during Spring Training with eight to 10 of the young players in Major League camp who were expected to have a presence in Houston at some point within a year or so. My message: please, please please…think before you tweet.
“Before you tweet something, imagine one of the beat writers standing in front of you with a flip cam pointed at your face and a tape recorder running,” I’d say. “Now, say the tweet out loud. Are you comfortable with this being on the record?”
Tweets are most definitely suitable for public, and media, consumption. If reporters see something newsworthy on Twitter, it’s considered very much on the record and if it’s juicy enough, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll run with it. This is the world we live in today. Players may not like it, but they have to adjust to it. Some have done this better than others.
Prior to Spring Training in 2012, we designed large signs, in English and Spanish, to hang in the clubhouses at all of the Minor League affiliates, plus in the Major League clubhouses in Houston and Kissimmee. Titled “The Dos and Don’ts of Twitter” (with focus more on the don’ts), we explained the rules in an orderly, colorful fashion, using eye-catching graphics to illustrate what’s good and what’s bad. Some sections included smiley faces and a cartoon drawing of a “thumbs up” to show what is acceptable, while frowning faces and thumbs down were used in the “don’t do this” areas.
Major League Baseball had sent out its own memo to the players explaining what was acceptable and what wasn’t regarding social media, but we wanted to spell out the expectations of players on something that could serve as a daily reminder without any effort, other than looking at it hanging on the wall. Most importantly, we just wanted the players to read it.
Included in the “what not to do on Twitter” section: don’t call out teammates or air private disagreements with coaches/managers/front office. Don’t tweet after drinking alcohol and don’t use profanity/sexual innuendos.
Also, don’t comment on signings or trades before the transactions are officially announced by the team. During our Spring Training talks with the Minor Leaguers, we explained that for every promotion, someone on the Major League team was getting traded, or released, or demoted. Informing the Minor League player that he was going to the big leagues was just one step in the process, and likely, the first step.
So while you’re on Twitter celebrating your buddy making it to “the show,” we explained, there’s someone in the Major League clubhouse who’s about to lose his job. It’s usually in that order.
“Until you see it on my Twitter, it hasn’t happened,” I’d say. “I don’t care if a full 24 hours goes by between when it leaks out and when it’s confirmed. It’s unofficial until we say it’s not.”
On the list of “what to do on Twitter,” we encouraged players to show gratitude to the fans, to thank them for their support, and be humble. Talk about working hard and trying to improve. Speak of their teammates in a supportive manner, and talk about community events they’ve participated in.
In the middle of the poster, in a shaded box, was this:
BEFORE TWEETING, ASK YOURSELF:
* Is this something I want my parents/wife/girlfriend/relatives to know about me?
* Will this create conflict with my teammates/organization?
* Is this something I would be OK seeing quoted in a newspaper/online news site?
Finally, we gave examples of good tweets and bad tweets by professional athletes.
@JustinVerlander: My 2012 resolutions: Help Tigers get to World Series, meet more veterans, learn Spanish.
@OakcliffBully (Kenyon Martin): All the haters should catch full blown aids and die! do the world a favor! and rid us of you all!
Clearly, a bad tweet.
Our intent wasn’t to stifle players or take away their freedom of speech. I wanted them to be themselves, to have opinions, to show their personalities and embrace the opportunity for a healthy give-and-take with the fanbase. But they also needed to understand that while they are representing Major League Baseball and the teams that are paying them, they are held to a higher standard.
There have been hiccups over time, sure. And it’s possible that another Ian Stewart situation will happen again. For the most part, though, I’ve been impressed by how ballplayers handle social media, especially during times of adversity when fans can vent their frustrations directly to a players’ Twitter account. These guys show amazing restraint, and I commend them.