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«International Journal of Sport Communication, 2012, 5, 503-521 © 2012 Human Kinetics, Inc. ORIGINAL RESEARCH The Positives and ...»

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International Journal of Sport Communication, 2012, 5, 503-521

© 2012 Human Kinetics, Inc. www.IJSC-Journal.com


The Positives and Negatives of Twitter:

Exploring How Student-Athletes Use

Twitter and Respond to Critical Tweets

Blair Browning Jimmy Sanderson

Baylor University, USA Clemson University, USA Twitter has become a popular topic in sport communication research. Little research to date, however, has examined Twitter from the perspective of student-athletes.

This research explored how student-athletes at an NCAA Division I university used Twitter and reacted to critical tweets from fans. Semistructured interviews with 20 student-athletes were conducted. Analysis revealed that student-athletes used Twitter in 3 primary ways: keeping in contact, communicating with followers, and accessing information. With respect to critical tweets, student-athletes reported various perceptions about them and diverse strategies for responding to them. The results suggest that Twitter is a bene cial communicative tool for student-athletes but also presents challenges, given the ease with which fans attack them via this social-media platform. Accordingly, athletic departments must be proactive in helping student-athletes use Twitter strategically, particularly in responding to detractors.

Keywords: college athletics, sports and identity, social media and sports Social-media technologies are important players in sport communication (Sanderson, 2011a; Sanderson & Kassing, 2011). Although there are multiple social-media platforms operating in the sports market, Twitter is at the forefront with sports stakeholders (Sanderson & Kassing, 2011). Indeed, athletes, coaches, and broadcasters from nearly every sport maintain a Twitter presence, which allows sports fans to obtain immediate information directly from these sports gures. It is not surprising that sports teams are capitalizing on Twitter’s popularity and have integrated Twitter into their promotional and marketing activities (such as tweeting clues to guide fans on a scavenger hunt for free game tickets). Twitter has also introduced profound changes for sports journalists (Schultz & Sheffer, 2010;

Sheffer & Schultz, 2010), who now nd themselves in direct competition with athletes and sports teams in breaking and reporting news (Sanderson & Kassing, 2011), and Twitter is the “place” for instant, breaking sports news (Sanderson & Hambrick, 2012).

Browning is with the Dept. of Communication, Baylor University, Waco, TX. Sanderson is with the Dept. of Communication Studies, Clemson University, Clemson, SC.

504 Browning and Sanderson Twitter isexploding in use and in February 2012 exceeded 500 million users.

A more telling statistic is that while Facebook currently boast 900 million users, “if Twitter keeps growing at this rate, it will reach 1 billion users in about a year and a half—but it might even be sooner than that, as its growth continues to accelerate” (Dugan, 2012). Twitter’s emergence corresponds to increased attention from sport communication and sport media researchers. Scholars have investigated how athletes use Twitter (Hambrick, Simmons, Greenhalgh, & Greenwell, 2010; Kassing & Sanderson, 2010; Pegoraro, 2010), characteristics of athletes’ Twitter followers (Clavio & Kian, 2010), and Twitter’s in uence on sport media production and consumption (Hutchins, 2011; Sanderson & Hambrick, 2012). These studies have all shed important light on the Twitter phenomenon in sport. However, one key voice is underrepresented from this growing literature—that of the student-athlete.

On one hand, this is not surprising, as it is dif cult for researchers to obtain access to student-athletes. While balancing both their academic and athletic requirements can be daunting, the term student-athlete is one that is challenged by some scholars who contend its use (see Staurowsky & Sack, 2005), but we will employ this frequently used and accepted identi er throughout the article. As athletes at any level are arguably the reason for Twitter’s popularity in their sport, their perceptions and evaluations of Twitter are essential components that must be included in scholarly repertoire on Twitter. This study begins to ll this void by examining student-athletes’ motivations for using Twitter, along with how they manage and respond to critical commentary they receive there. This research provides valuable information that will assist athletic department personnel in their quest to help student-athletes harness the power of social media.

There are several reasons that student-athletes were chosen for this study.

First, unlike their professional counterparts, student-athletes have much stricter monitoring and consequences attached to their Twitter use (Sanderson, 2011b).

Whereas professional athletes are ned and censured for perceivedly inappropriate tweets, they still maintain their ability to play—yet with one tweet a student-athlete can lose his or her eligibility. Such was the case with former University of North Carolina football player Marvin Austin, who sparked an NCAA investigation after he was tweeting from a Miami nightclub, which ultimately resulted in the loss of his eligibility (Mandel, 2010). Many athletic departments are now contracting with social-media-monitoring services such as UDiligence and Varsity Monitor.

These organizations install applications that track student-athletes’ social-media activity and alert athletic department personnel when speci c words appear in a social-media post.

Second, student-athletes are college students, a demographic in which inappropriate social-media postings have become normalized (Miller, Parsons, & Lifer, 2010; Peluchette & Karl, 2009). Accordingly, when student-athletes tweet something that is deemed inappropriate by athletic department personnel, they may fail to understand why there is a problem. This perceptual divergence often results from athletic departments’ failing to de ne what constitutes an “inappropriate” social-media message (Sanderson, 2011b).

Third, student-athletes are teenagers and young adults. Via social-media sites such as Twitter, fans attack student-athletes with hostile and demeaning language (Trotter, 2012). The blinders of fandom overpower the realization that the target of the attack is an amateur; nevertheless, given the propensity with which they use social media, it How Student-Athletes Use Twitter is plausible that student-athletes are quite cognizant of what is being said about them via social media. These aspersions can produce potentially negative emotional and psychological effects. Social media are not going away, and it is imperative that both academic and industry personnel keep pace with the changing social-media landscape.

With this introduction provided, we now discuss pertinent literature.

Review of Literature Student-Athletes and Twitter Social media have become an unavoidable part of the current college experience.

Accompanying this popularity, however, are questions about the content that students are posting (Peluchette & Karl, 2009, Miller et al., 2010). College students are very free in disclosing information via social media, and this behavior appears to be driven by status needs. For example, McKinney, Kelly, and Duran (2012) found a signi cant, positive relationship between college students’ attitude about sharing information and the frequency with which they used Facebook and Twitter. They further discovered that higher levels of narcissism were associated with the number of self-focused tweets. Just as their peers have ocked to social-media sites, so, too, have student-athletes. Twitter has become a popular haven for student-athletes, albeit one that has generated considerable controversy, as the following cases illustrate.

On December 10, 2011, a ght marred the end of a basketball game between the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University. Multiple players were suspended and the proverbial “black eye” was af xed to the game in press coverage.

Some of the players for both schools had been trash talking each other via Twitter before the game. This behavior continued into the game, ultimately leading to the disastrous nish. While these two universities have a long-standing rivalry, Twitter certainly facilitated trash-talking between student-athletes and perhaps had a role in escalating the feud in this rivalry.

Student-athletes also tweet information that hinders their professional future.

Zach Houchins, a baseball player from Louisburg College in North Carolina, was a 15th-round draft choice of the Washington Nationals in the 2011 Major League Baseball amateur draft. Immediately after the draft, a Nationals fan blog posted tweets from Houchins that appeared from April to June 2011. In a blog post titled “Nats Draft a Bigot?” (2011) one sample tweet stated, “My teacher just told me not to worry ab a make up test bc he’ll pass me. Whatta boss nigga.” This was possibly the least alarming of several racist tweets, and the blog posted ended with a tweet by Houchins stating, “Gotta watch what I say up here ha,” which was titled “Too late.” The Nationals chastised Houchins for his tweets and he ultimately returned to school (Kilgore, 2011).

Inappropriate tweets generate considerable media attention, and athletic departments understandably emphasize the negative aspects of Twitter and other socialmedia tools. Sanderson (2011b) analyzed the social-media policies of Division I athletic departments and found that the policies overwhelmingly framed social media negatively. However, this is only one side of the story—Twitter possesses tremendous connective and identity-building capabilities (Sanderson, 2013), bene ts that receive very little mention in student-athlete instruction. Sanderson (2011b) recommended that athletic department social-media policies be more balanced and 506 Browning and Sanderson that more attention be given to the perspective of student-athletes in shaping those policies by incorporating student-athletes’ motivations for using social media. To

that end, we pose the following research question:

RQ1: What motivations do student-athletes report for using Twitter?

One reason for Twitter’s popularity is the increased access it gives fans to athletes and sports gures (Sanderson, 2011a, 2013). While this enhanced immediacy can be positive, it brings with it problems, particularly for student-athletes.

Twitter, Student-Athletes, and Fan Behavior For many people, sports fandom is a signi cant component of their social identity (Trujillo & Krizek, 1994; Wann, Royalty, & Roberts, 2000). This identity, grounded in attachments to teams and athletes, can provoke maladaptive behaviors (Wake eld & Wann, 2006), particularly if athletes or teams do not meet fans’ expectations.

Wake eld and Wann (2006) noted that highly identi ed fans have a greater propensity to enact dysfunctional behaviors at sporting events and are heavy consumers of sport media formats that promote confrontation (e.g., talk radio). The emergence of social media has created another realm for confrontations, especially between fans and athletes (Sanderson, 2011a). Via social media, fans now have direct access to athletes and routinely direct hostile and vitriolic language toward them. For instance, consider this tweet from a fan to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who apparently cost the fan a victory in his fantasy league: “@RayRice27 rice u f*cking pussy, how about u become a real RB and stop being ur teams leading WR every week??? Just lost fantasy cuz of u” (Kassing & Sanderson, in press).

Student-athletes are also targets for such in ammatory language, and as noted earlier, this is perhaps more problematic, given their age and amateur status. For example, during the 2012 college football recruiting period, ESPN.com reported on two student-athletes who received numerous derogatory tweets from fans after they decommitted from football programs they initially announced they would attend (Trotter, 2012). For one of these athletes, Ja’Quay Williams, the abuse was so awful that he turned over his Twitter account to a friend, who subsequently censured fans by tweeting, “It’s bad that my boy Quay can’t even run his twitter anymore cause you people won’t even let the kid have fun and enjoy himself in HighSchool” (Trotter, 2012). A similar story, albeit with Facebook, occurred with C.J. Johnson, a high school football player from Mississippi during the 2011 college football recruiting season. Johnson initially committed to Mississippi State but after an assistant coaching change elected to attend the University of Mississippi instead. Mississippi State fans attacked him on Facebook to the point that he deactivated his pro le (Staples, 2011).

Finally, as evidence of how derogatory these attacks can be, consider Baylor women’s basketball player Brittney Griner. Griner, currently viewed as the best player in women’s college basketball, is routinely subjected to hostile tweets about her appearance, such as, “Why is Brittney Griner so good at basketball? Because she’s actually a man. #haveyouheardhertalk” (Dixon, 2012). As these brief examples illuminate, student-athletes are no strangers to vitriolic attacks from fans. As such, it is important to know how they perceive these comments and respond to them.

Thus, we pose the following research questions:

How Student-Athletes Use Twitter RQ2a: How do student-athletes perceive critical tweets?

RQ2b: How do critical tweets affect student-athletes?

RQ3: How do student-athletes respond to critical tweets?

Theoretical Background Motivations for media use are highly informed by uses-and-grati cations theory, which serves as the theoretical framework for the rst portion of this study. For the study component dealing with how student-athletes respond to critical tweets, dialogical self theory was used as the guiding framework. Each of these theories is now discussed.

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