Social media and the modern athlete

High school athletes must learn how to promote themselves online without falling into social media traps

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Danielle Haynes, Instagram template from PNGegg

As athletes take to social media, they must be aware that what they post could have both positive and negative consequences.

Layla Fouche, Sports Editor

Over the years, social media has become an outlet for personal opinions and free speech, positive or negative. 

The sports scene is greatly affected by this phenomenon and the abuse continues to damage the careers and reputations of high-ranked athletes. As well as those under the spotlight of the media lens, college and high school athletes are also under the same pressures. Despite seeing pro athletes get in major trouble, college and high school athletes may not understand the ramifications of social media on their athletic future.

People use social media more than others may think. According to Oberlo, “…the average amount of time spent on social media worldwide is set to hit 147 minutes, or two hours and 27 minutes, a day in 2022. Not only is this a two-minute increase on 2021 numbers, but it is also the highest ever recorded”. That means there is a chance of 147 minutes on social media spent on the accounts of athletes.

 

Professional athletes and social media

 

There are many examples of professional athletes who have suffered consequences for their social media posts.

Jermaine Whitehead, a former NFL safety, was released from the Cleveland Browns in 2019 after a meltdown on Twitter. According to WKYC Studios, after a 24-19 loss against the Denver Broncos and suffering a broken hand, Whitehead posted threatening tweets to fans and reporters who criticized his play. Profanities were used to retaliate against radio host Dustin Fox. As a result, Whitehead’s Twitter account was suspended along with his release from the league.

Another athlete that was under fire for the misuse of social media is Kyrie Irving. He is a point guard for the Brooklyn Nets and was suspended for 5 games without pay for posting about a book and film with antisemitic tropes. 

According to ESPN, Irving failed to apologize during a post-practice media session. The Nets organization then said he is “currently unfit to be associated with the Brooklyn Nets…[and] had the opportunity to – but fail – to clarify”. Hours after, the Nets announced his suspension which Irving followed with an apology to the Jewish community.

Like Jermaine Whitehead and Kyrie Irving, Brendan Donovan, a St. Louis Cardinals rookie, had troubles with his words on the Internet, but his words showed the lesson that nothing ever goes away online. He apologized for resurfaced homophobic tweets from when he was 14 years old. 

According to USA Today, Twitter users directed the tweets to the attention of reporters, at least one including an anti-gay slur. Donovan claims they were part of “playful banter” and took full responsibility for his actions. He went on to apologize to anyone he offended and defended his character by saying, “… that’s not who I am”. Resurfaced tweets from decades prior show that what you put on the internet follows you no matter how long ago they were.

While athletes can get in trouble when they cross the line on social media, they can also be important follows for those with a huge interest in sports, as they often know more than what is going on in the game. Ritenour baseball coach Zachary Buxman is a prime example of an individual who follows professional athletes on social media for a variety of reasons. 

As a coach, I follow many pro athletes and former pro athletes on social media. I like to follow them because it can be useful to see how they carry themselves, as individuals that are under the media microscope,” Buxman said, “I tell my athletes that they are under similar scrutiny as athletes in a school.”

Along with his team, Buxman follows pro athletes for helping them improve. 

“Many of them post useful information on how I can help my athletes improve their game as well. I am aware that as public figures, some of the more high-profile athletes have media teams that handle their accounts for them, so a lot of the information they put out is pretty generic”, Buxman says. 

While he does enjoy the informational content, he appreciates the lighter sides of social media with pro athletes. 

“Some of them are just very entertaining. Watching the way that they interact with fans can be a reminder that they are just normal people, with a more than ordinary profession,” Buxman says.

Media is a source that no matter how much it is used for bad, there will always be those who use it for the important things in life. The inclusive sports community continues to thrive with the help of social media as its backbone.

“Some athletes use their platforms to bring joy to others, and others use them to bring awareness to issues that they view as important; it’s cool seeing people come together and share ideas about all matters of things, with the only real connective thread being a sport”, Buxman says. 

 

High School Sports – Learning how to manage

 

With the rise of the media and the focus on athletes, those as young as high schoolers have to be cautious of what they post. Senior swim and softball athlete Elizabeth Dobbs says that she does have to think about all she represents when posting. 

“I think that when I post online I do take into account that while I may not be posting for the team or in uniform, it still represents the team and sport as a whole,” Dobbs said. “In my generation now, it’s obvious that athletes are constantly influenced on a daily basis by social media. For example, while social media is one of the best ways to gain positive publicity for a team or sport, it is also one of the fastest ways to attract negative attention towards a sport.”

Ritenour High School Athletics is known for its large media presence by both the KRHS media team and the athletes and teams themselves. Athletic Director Drew Lohnes says that the same school policies extend to athletes as they would to any other student, and that hopefully those are lessons being learned at the high school. 

Social Media policies are the same for athletes as any other student.  Being a responsible digital citizen is being taught at each school within the district,” Lohnes said.  

With rules comes great responsibility, and seasonal athletics meetings always have social media talks on their agenda. 

I have those conversations almost on a daily basis.  It is hard to get the message through to youth because of their addiction to those social media platforms,” Lohnes says.

As great of a power as social media is, abuse tends to occur, especially with teenagers. 

“I have dealt with discipline from social media posts/usage many times here.  Discipline has been everything from a student conference to long-term suspension due to cyberbullying”, Lohnes says. 

Ritenour School District has zero tolerance for bullying, most specifically by social media. Being cautious of what we post online can not only help ourselves but others as well. 

“Social Media can be used to get so much good information out but the dangers are real as the temptation to express opinions that people would never do in person due to the safety of being behind a keyboard,” Lohnes says.

 

The transition from high school to college

 

Much like pro athletes, college athletes are in the same spotlight when it comes to media. They are treated as such due to being high-profile players in high-profile schools. Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri now has an NCAA Division I athletics program. Lindenwood Assistant Football Coach Corey Bethany has to make sure his athletes know the dangers of posting along with the positives. 

“Social media can be positive for athletes to promote positive things about themselves, sports programs, and their universities. Unfortunately, how easily players can promote positive things, it’s extremely easy to promote negative things as well,” Bethany said. 

Some may believe that when young kids abuse the media, it will be disregarded because they are just being kids. Like Donovan, it has repeatedly been shown that no matter how young someone is when posting negative things, it will follow. High school athletes need to continue being cautious of their posts, especially if they are looking forward to a future career. The controversy surrounding a player’s social media is potentially damaging and can break their future as college and professional athletes.

“We do look at high school athletes’ socials when recruiting that athlete. We consider their social media page as their resume,” Bethany says. 

Coach Bethany has high expectations for his players, and that extends to how they present themselves off the football field. He would have a difficult time with social media abuse within his football community. 

“I would feel disappointed and upset after seeing my player abuse social media because our players should know better”, Bethany says. 

Having the Division I title holds a lot of responsibility, but it seems that Lindenwood University football understands how to manage it and that college athletes show more restraint than high school athletes. 

“As a college coach, we don’t have to do much talking about the players’ social media presence. When I was a high school head coach, it was a daily issue, so it was talked about frequently”, Bethany says.

Young athletes may struggle with managing personal social media accounts, but it is important to realize that media and sports support each other. College and high school athletes often use their school’s media accounts to advertise their successes. Unfortunately, there are a select few that misuse this platform. If the media continues to damage the image of sports, there may be a huge loss in its community.