After the Kentucky men’s basketball team lost to Baylor on December 1, fans stirred up what one player called “a bunch of negativity” on Twitter, and four Wildcat players decided to drop their Twitter accounts.
But new research suggests that some athletes take a different tack when facing criticism in social media. Instead of turning off their Twitter feeds, players in one big-time program were more apt to fire back at haters by “subtweeting”—directing comments to another Twitter member without mentioning their user name. Others used their friends or followers to help defend themselves.
The findings come from a new paper, “The Positives and Negatives of Twitter: Exploring How Student-Athletes Use Twitter and Respond to Critical Tweets,” which was published in the December issue of the International Journal of Sport Communication.
Twitter has become a popular hangout for athletes, but not always a safe one. At the University of North Carolina, one player’s tweets from a Miami nightclub prompted an NCAA investigation. Twitter taunts between players at the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University helped fuel an ugly on-court brawl.
Controversies like those have caused athletic departments to step up monitoring of players’ tweets. But athletes’ use of social networks continues to soar, the research suggests.
For their paper, Blair Browning, an assistant professor in the department of communication at Baylor University, and Jimmy Sanderson, an assistant professor in the department of communication studies at Clemson University, talked to 20 athletes in one top-level program, including 10 football and five men’s basketball players.
They found that some players check their Twitter accounts hundreds of times a day—some even during halftime of their games—to stay in touch with followers and monitor what people are saying about them. In certain cases, players have set up their Twitter accounts to alert them each time they’re mentioned.
“It has this magnetic draw to let them know how they’re talked about,” Mr. Browning said in an interview.
Players view much of their time on Twitter as positive, using it to help brand themselves and sometimes talk directly to fans. But those same fans sometimes say nasty things.
Critical tweets appear to have little effect on certain athletes, the researchers concluded. But some players found it difficult to deal with the negativity.
“Some of [the tweets] that we get are very overwhelming, and you’re like, really? You’ll send this to a student-athlete? I mean come on now,” one player said.
Some students stung by negative comments couldn’t help but respond directly to their haters.
“I ain’t going to lie,” one player told the researchers. “Sometimes I did respond to them, and in a negative way, and I’d tweet back to the world, and I’d apologize for being upset. I should’ve handled it a little better.”
Another player used the criticism as motivation. “Oh yeah, that’s how you feel?” one athlete said. “I’m about to go out and do exactly what you said I wouldn’t do. I’m the type, I like proving people wrong.”
In other cases, players “blocked” followers, attempting to shut out the negative voices. But there’s no way to control all the criticism, so more often athletes have found indirect ways of firing back.
In one case, a star running back was criticized as “soft” and “not hitting the hole hard enough.” The player didn’t want to get into a battle with one random Twitter user, but he didn’t want the tweet to sit there unaddressed, the researchers said.
He ended up acknowledging the criticism without mentioning the messenger, and defending himself in the process.
“Players have found that they can negate or try to defuse the situation without directly replying, but they still get to combat whatever critique is out there,” Mr. Browning said.
In other cases, players who are the object of scorn may get help from their peers. Last month, Spencer Dinwiddie, a Colorado basketball player, came to the defense of Pierre Jackson, who plays for Baylor, after Mr. Jackson took heat on Twitter.
Mr. Dinwiddie has done the same for himself. “Y’all ain’t gotta like me, nor trust me, I could care less,” he tweeted on November 17. “Y’all’s opinion and two [cents] won’t change how I handle my business.”
That sort of maturity is what athletics officials might hope for out of their players. But the researchers know that there are plenty more opportunities for athletes to have negative run-ins on Twitter.
“We live in a hypercritical culture,” Mr. Browning said. “These kids are playing in front of a national audience, and their critiques are seen by the world.
“It can be very stinging for a 19-year-old to be lambasted by people they’ve never met before,” he continued. “Rather than be reactive to the way he responds—he might fly off the handle, which can hurt him and the university—we need to be proactive and train on the front end to be able to better process those tweets.”
(Photo of Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein by UK Athletics)