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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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Student-athletes handled identity-management issues stemming from critical tweets in diverse ways. Some were content with their athletic identity and framed fan behavior in ways that mitigated the personal attacks (e.g., misguided fandom) and anchored their identity to internal measures, rather than allowing critics to shape their worth in their sports. Similar to this rst group, some student-athletes indicated 516 Browning and Sanderson that they ignored the criticisms but did use them as motivation. For these studentathletes, when their identity was challenged, it served as an impetus to prove their detractors wrong. They responded by bolstering their commitment to their sport, letting their performance, rather than their tweets, speak to their detractors. In this type of response, identity was placed in a dialectical pull between wanting to ignore criticism yet heeding the critiques so they could work harder to silence their detractors.

A third group of student-athletes attempted to ignore critical tweets by deleting them, yet when their critics persisted, student-athletes reinforced their behavior by continually attempting to erase these individuals. These student-athletes, while openly professing that critical tweets did not bother them, nevertheless continued to diligently scrub such comments from their Twitter pro le. Whereas studentathletes are subjected to negative behavior during athletic contests, their exposure to these comments generally ends after the game. However, Twitter enables the written word to linger on the pro le, creating a perception of permanence that fractures student-athletes’ identity, as evidenced by the labor they undertake to remove offensive tweets.

Finally, a fourth group of student-athletes overtly responded to their critics, which re ects an identity position where defense was a necessary reaction to any personal attack. Although these student-athletes likely felt no different than their fellow student-athletes about the effort they devoted to their sports, this was an integral identity component, and, as such, they could not stand by idly when critiqued.

There appears to be a progression that student-athletes undertake as they gain more experience with Twitter criticism. Some indicated that they had responded only to learn that this was not an optimal choice (likely after being reprimanded by their coach or athletic department personnel), so they now used other ways to mitigate the hit to their identity (e.g., working harder, subtweeting).

These varied responses underscore the diversity among student-athletes and illustrate that athletic departments cannot assume that all student-athletes will ignore critical tweets. Accordingly, it would be helpful for athletic departments to assess where each student-athlete is with their identity management and identify ways to help student-athletes respond to critical tweets, recognizing that this is likely to be a process rather than an immediate cure-all.

Student-athletes’ being ripe candidates for criticism is nothing new, but two things that appear to be escalating are the boldness of the critics and the immediacy of their messages. Twitter’s rise has been accompanied by what appears, at least anecdotally, to be a hypercritical society in which people seem to feel empowered to send very demeaning or condemning messages to student-athletes via Twitter.

This brazen con dence stems from the protection users have behind the phone or computer screen. Indeed, while many users list their real names, plenty hide behind the security of anonymity when sending critical tweets. Again, negativity is not something athletes are unaccustomed to, and most know that criticism comes with job. For example, New York Yankees setup man David Robertson, who brie y took over the closer role after legendary reliever Mariano Rivera was injured, had a very rough outing and tweeted the following after the game: “I expected to be slaughtered tonight on twitter, but the support y’all have shown reminds me how amazing Yankee fans are.” It is tweet-worthy when fans show support because the alternative is obviously the norm, yet even if there were negative tweets toward Robertson, he is a paid professional athlete. Student-athletes are in a precarious position because they are amateurs, are managing educational pursuits while How Student-Athletes Use Twitter holding essentially a full-time job with their athletic demands, and are subject to greater penalties for social-media missteps (e.g., loss of athletic eligibility) than professional athletes. Moreover, if their scholarship is revoked, it means the loss of not only eligibility but also what is hopefully a good trajectory vocationally as the result of their academic education. Without the scholarship, some student-athletes will no longer be able to pursue their degrees.

While hate mail has always been around, Twitter has exponentially increased the ease with which such messages reach athletes. In fact, only 2 of the 20 studentathletes reported having their Twitter accounts private. Essentially, this means that 18 of the 20 participants have their Twitter accounts set up in a way that enables anyone who wishes to follow them to do so and, as such, have access to anything that they tweet. Unlike Facebook, where users have to agree to be friends, Twitter does not necessitate this step unless a user speci cally con gures the account to review follower requests. Furthermore, one does not even have to follow a person to send them a tweet. After a game, as long as an individual knows the Twitter handle of the athlete they want to contact, they can send a tweet that the athlete will likely view. As noted in the results, student-athletes are anxious to see what people are saying about the game and quickly look up their own messages but also search their names on Twitter. Thus, even if other Twitter users do not explicitly send an athlete a message, if they simply use their name in a tweet, the athlete can see it.

Although some participants attributed this behavior to misguided fandom, the fact remains that student-athletes are still 18–22 years old, and the rate and content of critical tweets weighs heavily on these young minds.

Twitter’s rise in prominence corresponds to a need for sports organizations to proactively monitor and address its in uence (Sanderson, 2011a), particularly in the realm of college athletics. As with most social-media tools, Twitter can elicit both positive and negative outcomes. This is particularly true for student-athletes, who may use Twitter in a way that they feel is innocuous but that ends up causing negative outcomes. For example, in December 2011 the NCAA suspended a Lehigh University football player for retweeting another student athlete’s tweet that contained offensive language and a racial slur (Thornton, 2011). From training student-athletes on the front end to helping them absorb and respond to critical comments they receive on the back end, it is imperative that athletic departments acknowledge the powerful position that Twitter plays in the lives of student-athletes in today’s world (Sanderson, 2011b). In undertaking these efforts, it is crucial to acknowledge how student-athletes’ motivations for using Twitter in uence the ways they respond to criticism directed at them on Twitter. Recognizing that identity management is an important factor that in uences student-athletes’ experiences with critical tweets will help athletic departments develop more meaningful approaches to Twitter than simply banning its use.

Limitations and Directions for Future Research This research, while providing important information about how student-athletes use Twitter and respond to critical tweets, has several limitations that we now acknowledge. First, the sample contained student-athletes at only one university. Maxwell (2005) noted that even when careful attention is paid to participant recruitment and data analysis, the information gleaned from small samples may not be typical. We acknowledge that it is important to obtain the perspective of student-athletes at 518 Browning and Sanderson other Division I institutions, as well as those at other levels of competition (e.g., Division II, NAIA), to see what similarities and differences exist. It may be that student-athletes at smaller institutions receive fewer critical tweets than those at Division I schools, who generally have a more visible media presence.

Second, the data are cross-sectional, and how student-athletes use Twitter and respond to critical tweets may change over time. Longitudinal approaches would be worthwhile in investigating how student-athletes use Twitter and respond over the course of their college careers. Finally, since the study aimed to constrain participants to one of the four major sports, there were signi cantly fewer female athletes interviewed than male athletes. Furthermore, although the “major” sports should attract more of a viewing audience, which should mean that there is more potential for those student-athletes to be followed on Twitter, this is certainly not guaranteed. In fact, a former collegian like Tiger Woods (golf) or future collegians and former Olympians like Gabby Douglas (gymnastics) or Missy Franklin (swimming) would not have quali ed to be a part of this study even though they all have numerous followers on Twitter. However, each of these limitations also provides an exciting springboard into future directions for this intriguing area of research as it expands to additional contexts (e.g., student-athletes of other sports or other divisions) and to differences and similarities of gender-based research.

Additional future avenues of research may include looking at how studentathletes in uence one another to use Twitter. For example, social-network analysis could be used to ascertain which student-athletes are at the “hub” of a team’s Twitter activity and how their Twitter content shapes that of their teammates. Comparing student-athletes’ Twitter activity across sports and athletic conferences may yield important data about how student-athletes in similar situations use Twitter. Finally, given the growth of Twitter, it would be worthwhile to investigate how high school athletes are using it and how they interact with critics. Such measures could identify positive and negative strategies that could be incorporated into training programs that may help student-athletes be better prepared to handle Twitter when they enter college.


Twitter currently has a preeminent role in college athletics. This is even re ected by various teams’ incorporating their student-athletes’ Twitter handles on the players’ athletic biography pages (e.g., USC football and Tennessee basketball). Twitter is now a permanent xture in college athletics. Student-athletes, much like their peers, have gravitated to social media to connect. Athletic departments cannot expect that student-athletes will eschew Twitter simply because of fears about problematic content, yet several teams ranging from the Kansas football team last year to Connecticut’s women’s basketball team have banned players from using Twitter during the season. New Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer made national headlines when he stated that he would be doing the same for his team. Inappropriate tweets can clearly harm the future prospects of an individual and also be detrimental to the university. For instance, a Florida State football player recently tweeted that “Child support is worse than AIDS” (Sorenson, 2012). In spite of an increase of social-media monitoring by athletic departments, problematic tweets continue to manifest. This suggests that education is a more optimal solution than surveillance. In this respect, sport communication scholarship has much to offer and How Student-Athletes Use Twitter sport communication researchers should actively seek out partnerships with athletic departments to forge mutually bene cial partnerships. It is apparent that this study is merely scratching the surface of an emerging area of research that must continually be addressed to stay current on the rapid evolving topic of Twitter in college athletics.


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