Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
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Jeremy Papaso / Staff photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff photographer
Tom Pennington / Getty Images North America
The social media age is long into its tenure and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — the once chic platforms ruled by the young — have expanded into an all-out place of self-promotion and branding, distortion and self-affliction.
The possibilities are as endless as they are effortless. And athletics are helping blaze the trail.
Palmer Ridge quarterback Ty Evans, the 2019 University of Colorado commit, is one of many Division-I destined high school athletes who are currently building a social media presence that could soon be blasted mainstream.
Evans’ accounts are tame in comparison to some other highly-touted recruits. His Twitter shows off his fun personality and a golly-gee-shucks winning smile, while keeping the attention squarely centered on football and family.
The senior admits that he is conscious of every tweet and Instagram he posts and is fully aware of how his social media is shaping his growing public image. Nine months ago, he used his Twitter account to announce that he’d decommitted from Arkansas and did so again in January when he committed to CU. In each of those tweets, he was meticulous in conveying his appreciation without coming across insincere. Both tweets made news across several media outlets.
“The image of myself that I’m putting out there is always positive,” Evans said. “I’m just trying to show people what I’m all about, family-first, team-first. I’m making sure that’s the message they’re getting instead of a negative one.”
Perhaps now more than ever do high schoolers — a generation nurtured online — understand the benefits and pitfalls lurking ahead by what they say and do on the web.
In sports, they’ve grown up watching their favorite professional athletes on TV while following their off-field lives through social media. LeBron James is a master in these dueling worlds. The basketball star uses his @KingJames Twitter account to provide his 41.3 million followers insight — everything from a behind-the-scenes look at his game, to his personality and beliefs, to his entrepreneurship and budding Hollywood career.
Athletes’ gaffes, however, need no finesse. They have a way of grabbing headlines in a blink of an eye.
Buffalo Bills rookie quarterback Josh Allen faced backlash in April prior to the NFL Draft after racist social media content he sent in high school was abruptly unearthed.
According to Yahoo! Sports, Allen had multiple tweets using the N-word. He also responded to a question on AskFM in 2013, posting “Why are you so white? — If it ain’t white, it ain’t right.”
Allen later told ESPN that some of his posts were in reference to rap lyrics and television.
The MLB has had its own recent outbreak of players suffering from reckless years-old tweets. Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Josh Hader, Washington Nationals infielder Trea Turner and Atlanta Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb have joined the list after racist and homophobic tweets were found on their profiles.
Hader, Newcomb, Turner along with Allen have since pled that the online posts aren’t a reflection of who they are today — chalk it up to youthful immaturity. And yet that didn’t stop fans from mercifully booing Hader at away ballparks this past month. It didn’t stop Newcomb from having to answer about his tweets from the media in the clubhouse instead of talking about the near no-hitter he just threw on July 29. It didn’t stop Allen from falling from a potential top pick in the draft to seventh.
Call it something of a modern-age cautionary tale. And to get out in front of these problems, the professional sports world is branching out to the schools. The Denver Broncos ran teen players through a crash-course session on social media at the state’s high school football media day last week. It’s the same training they put rookies through, the team said.
“There’s so many examples of reporters and media digging up these past tweets and it has hurt some of these professional athletes,” said Bobby Mestas, the Broncos’ Director of Youth and High School Football. “So, whatever we can do to help educate and to really take these kids and coaches through the dos and donts of it, and how to use social media as a tool, and use it to live your life but not post your life — a little education can certainly help.”
Problems will still arise
High school athletic departments on statewide and local levels are faced with a new-generational issue of trying to protect high schoolers from online dangers. Namely, themselves.
The issue is complicated and muddled, and the question of what role a teacher, administrator or coach should have with a student’s social media account is open for interpretation.
“We do the best we can to monitor them — we follow them on Twitter because we want to recognize them for the positive things they do through their Twitter accounts,” Erie football coach Chad Cooper said. “Are we able to see everything that they do that they’re able to post? No.”
Cooper said monitoring all high school athletes online is nearly impossible, pointing to Villanova guard Donte DiVincenzo. The redshirt sophomore had offensive tweets from high school brought up moments after his team won the NCAA Championship in April. The Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four had perhaps the greatest night of his life turn into a public decry.
“I was talking to my athletic director Justin (Carpenter) about this,” Cooper said. “You would have thought they went through his background and all that. And it came out. I just think you can’t 100 percent cover social media with all your players. Even all the way up to college to pro, stuff is going to come out.
“Teach the best you can and hope for the best outcome”
In high school athletics around the state, issues arising from social media are dealt with by an individual school or district, where many school departments, athletic programs and teams have social media accounts of their own.
In the area, five athletic directors answered a three-question multiple choice survey about the issue of high school athletes and social media. The survey touched on the individual department’s overall view of student athletes using social media, the effectiveness of monitoring it and the amount of issues it has caused.
Four of the five ADs said students should use social media but should be educated of its consequences, while one took the stance that social media use is none of a school’s business. Four of the five also said that social media use can’t be monitored, leaving a single AD that thought it could be with strict guidelines.
As for issues arising at the school due to social media, four said there have been “some” issues, which included insensitive tweets and bullying in the past. One, however, said there has been no issues and none of the ADs thought the social media was a growing problem.
“We’re all here to help kids,” said Niwot athletic director Chase McBride, who is a former Broomfield football star turned CU football player. “We’re not here to catch a kid or try to catch them doing something wrong. The large majority of what is out there is positive and normal. It’s just the tiny proportion that kind of carries the weight of what is heard of social media.”
Social media can be beneficial
At CU, they want to push potential over fear when it comes to the athletes posting their content. Meet assistant athletic director/sports information director Curtis Snyder, the man who has had a large hand in the athletic department’s digital and social media workings for the better part of a decade. Snyder said players have done well for themselves thanks to sharing their personality and character online. Moving forward, he believes others can reap the benefits as well.
“It’s more about personal branding,” he said. “Basically, it’s an element of free speech and we’re not going to limit that.”
There are a few restrictions, of course. College teams have rules regarding social media. So does the NCAA.
Coaches have a keen eye on it, too.
“We always tell our players don’t put anything on there that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see,” CU women’s golf coach Anne Kelly said. “And not just with sports, but I think for future employment and things like that. It can affect somebody’s chances of getting the job they want, the scholarship they want, something like that.”
The choice is up to the athlete
Former CU receiver Paul Richardson showed the positive effects social media can have while in Boulder in 2013. The current Washington Redskins receiver used his online platform to become a local icon. After returning from an ACL injury that took away his 2012 season, Richardson went online to exude his passion and admiration for all things football and CU. His upbeat personality was carved into his image for fans who enjoyed rooting for someone they felt like they had a deeper connection with.
Today, Richardson has more than 86,000 Twitter followers and nearly 275,000 followers on Instagram — all to hear his message.
“I think like anything in life it can go both ways,” Snyder said. Either way look at it, “you have more power now than any athletes have had in history in terms of getting your message out.”
How it’s received? Therein lies a tale of risk and reward.
Brent W. New: email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @brentwnew