BY TYLER DUNNE
MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL/MCT
The moment a kick is missed, a pass is dropped, a tackle is whiffed is only the beginning. A football stadium is a safe haven.
Players don’t hear F-bombs from the student section. They can mute wrath from afar.
No, in 2014, blood boils when 21-, 22-year old athletes turn on their cell phone in the locker room. After sifting through all “keep your chin up” text messages from Moms and girlfriends, many inevitably tap open their Twitter accounts.
“Coaches say, don’t go on Twitter, don’t read it,” Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins said at the NFL scouting combine, “but it’s like touching a hot stove when you’re little. You’re going to touch it.”
Again, social media and sports have collided. Not necessarily by what athletes tweet themselves, rather by what they read. The backlash, the aftershock. Through the pre-draft madness, everything is measured.
Speed. Power. Intellect. Athleticism. The 300-plus draft prospects at the NFL combine in Indianapolis in February were lab rats. But there’s no stopwatch in existence that reveals how Prospect A will react to obscene and anonymous taunts.
Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo recharged the furor during the college basketball season. With fans blistering his players after games, Pitino said the site “poisons” minds. Izzo said Twitter is essentially a 24/7 opposing student section.
Then, days later, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery banned Twitter on his team.
After air-balling a potential game-tying three-pointer, the Hawkeyes’ Zach McCabe absorbed fans’ rage and then tweeted: “The fact that I have iowa fans saying – – – – (to) me is insane. . . You fans suck. . . Suck a fat one all of you.”
Most draft hopefuls in Indy vowed they’re above 140-character slurs. Some kids stay above the muck. Many don’t. Their mental fortitude is tested daily.
Watkins’ first exposure to this came his sophomore year. Florida lost to Georgia, 24-20, and he was the goat. The corner was burned for a touchdown on a crucial fourth-and-6 play.
He said fans ripped him, relentlessly, for a week.
“They tweet at you when you’re winning,” Watkins said. “But the same one that said ‘Congrats’ will come back at you when you’re losing. If I have a chance to read what they say, I’ll block them. It’s rough sometimes.”
This is a cyber student section without rules. It’s a Texas Tech fan shouting to Marcus Smart. Four- and five-star recruits have been doused in praise through high school. Coddled, not crucified. One gaffe in the spotlight — like McCabe’s miss — triggers a foreign response.
So, as Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said last year, players take criticism two ways. They can mute it all entirely. Or they can hunt it down, create “Google Alerts” for themselves and read every tweet.
USC safety Dion Bailey touches the stove. He reads every mention and isn’t afraid to egg on others. After Stanford scored a touchdown against Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, he ripped the Big Ten.
Through the Trojans’ losses to Notre Dame and UCLA, he said it got ugly.
Same deal when Lane Kiffin was fired.
“Some guys can’t handle the audacity that some fans have,” Bailey said.
“Because they can say things, but they know we’re not going to say anything back because we have something to lose and they don’t. They take advantage of it a little bit. But it’s all fun to me. I keep smiling and just move on with my life.
“All kinds of things. It got crazy with the Kiffin situation.”
Some nasty comments
Some players understand fans’ angst. They feel angst themselves. After all, this is a tool many 18-35 year-olds tend to daily. Syracuse defensive tackle Jay Bromley says everyone is a fan of something; he follows the New York Knicks.
“And all my choice words aren’t pretty right now,” he said.
He remembers the uproar online when his coach, Scott Shafer, called the city of Atlanta “softnosed” during an ice storm.
Other players do not understand.
Oregon defensive tackle Taylor Hart created his account six weeks before the combine. He has tweeted zero times, opting to live his life the old-fashioned way, face to face. But he thinks back to 2012 when Ducks kicker Alejandro Maldonado missed a 41-yard field goal in overtime against Stanford that wiped out national title hopes.
“Some people were saying some nasty stuff,” Hart said. “That was just another reason why I never really had it. Those people don’t really matter.”
At the heart of it, that’s the question.
Self-control a must
Why should any athlete care what the knucklehead with 13 followers even thinks? Why sweat it?
Seattle’s Richard Sherman is the league’s premier shutdown cornerback. He has his own “Beats by Dre” commercial that finishes with him ignoring reporters. Yet following his now-infamous rant to Erin Andrews, there he was interacting instead of ignoring.
San Jose State cornerback Bene Benwikere read every tweet, every response through that week-long furor. People called Sherman “an ignorant ape,” a “jungle monkey” and the n-word multiple times, said he “deserved to get shot in the (expletive) head” and that he needs to be “introduced” to George Zimmerman.
The reaction was abominable, but not abnormal. Benwikere doesn’t see the point in feeding the fire.
As he walked through the Lucas Oil Stadium lobby, he had a few words of wisdom for all prospects.
“You’ve got to have self-control,” Benwikere said. “To be a football player, you have to have to self-control. You have to be strong and realize that most of these guys have probably never even played the game. Even if they have played the game, they haven’t been in that moment, that situation.”
“How Richard responded, how people came at him, for me, if I’m in that situation, it’s more, ‘Let them be them. You’re entitled to your opinion.’ ”
There’s no policing social media. It’s transparency at warp speed. A Wild West of interaction.
Pro days and combines and interviews accomplish plenty. In 2014 and beyond, teams are must determine the thickness of a prospect’s skin, too.
That noise on Twitter will only get louder.
“You can’t stop everybody,” Benwikere said. “You can’t please everybody. You can’t stop everybody.”