It's easy to embrace what social media has brought to sports, with Twitter, Facebook and other services allowing fans and media members across the globe to keep track of and interact with coaches, players and other fans. There are also benefits for the coaches and players who use these services effectively, from getting their message out without a media filter to improving others' perceptions of them. However, social media can carry huge downsides for athletes as well, and perhaps especially for college athletes. Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo's recent negative remarks about Twitter (in reference to the Marcus Smart incident) on Monday's Mike & Mike illustrate that:
"It doesn't matter what you tweet. It's what you read," Izzo said on Mike & Mike on Monday. "That's what I keep telling my guys. We can control what they tweet, to a certain extent. They're going to get frustrated sometimes and probably say something stupid. But it's what they read. If somebody's writing stuff about your daughter when she's in high school, I'll bet you look at it a little differently. I've had grown men (my players) in my office in tears because of what's being written. That's what brings the frustration level.
"Marcus Smart is one heck of a guy. I love the kid. I spent three hours with him, and he's every bit what they say. But you know what? We all get frustrated, and I think he's getting grilled on that. We have no way of getting away from it. When you're in the gym, two hours, they're yelling at you, you get away, go back to your dorm and life becomes normal. Not anymore. Those same people at that arena are now yelling at you on Twitter. You can say, 'Don't read it,' but I don't think it's the way our kids are brought up."
Izzo makes some good points there and it's not the first time he's spoken out against the platform because of the hate tweets received by players. While Twitter can be a great tool for many athletes, there are also a lot of fans out there who just want to troll and annoy rival players. That may be particularly prominent in high-profile college sports, considering both the passion of the fanbases and the relative youth of the players on the receiving end. While LeBron James and other professional superstars undoubtedly get plenty of awful messages too, they tend to have much more experience in dealing with criticism. In college sports, the vitriol can start even before a recruit picks their school, and it can get particularly bad once that decision is made: see the story of Rashaan Evans. See any of these stories about fans swearing at athletes and even using racial slurs because they didn't pick their school. It's crazy. It's unsettling. It's the worst of social media.
It's not easy for players once they're competing in the NCAA, either. The trolling and taunting from opposing fans is still there, and the players aren't necessarily any better equipped to deal with it. Of course, in-person taunting has long been a part of sports events, but as Izzo noted, there are substantial differences on social media. For one thing, anonymity and isolation can embolden some to say things on Twitter they wouldn't in person. For another, the harassment can come at any time of the day, not just in a game where the athlete's prepared for it, and it can continue for weeks or months, not just one day.
Of course, elements like block buttons and private accounts can help, but they have limitations. Blocking can get rid of one particular troll, but they can create a new account, and even if they don't, there are plenty of other ones out there. Private accounts can be more effective, but they remove some of the main benefits for athletes. It's harder to boost your profile or get your side of the story out on a private account.
College athletes also have another element to worry about with social media: the chance that they'll violate school or NCAA rules in a post. Those violations can come in anything from a picture to a particular response, and there are always plenty eager to call attention to a public misstep from an athlete. Add that to the criticism, and there are plenty of pitfalls for athletes on social media.
Does that mean college coaches should ban or regulate players' Twitter or Facebook use? Hardly. Taking away players' voices is anything but a good idea. However, Izzo's quite right to point out the problems these services can create. Maybe that's how to address this: have teams expand their social media education efforts, focusing on what criticisms and such players should expect to see and how they should handle those situations when they arise. Social media's anything but an overall negative for sports, but it does carry some problematic elements, especially for college athletes. Those coaches like Izzo who point out these pitfalls aren't necessarily behind-the-times dinosaurs. They're trying to raise awareness for aspects of social media that athletes and fans should be more aware of.