MONTREAL, QC.– Social media has changed the way we communicate. It’s also had a tremendous impact on the way information is disseminated — in the world of sports journalism it has turned things topsy-turvy. New media types can have an equal, or in some instances greater, influence than the traditional folks.
In our own backyard, an aptitude with social media, and a compelling message, has allowed All Habs to put together a world-wide network connecting passionate fans of the Montreal Canadiens. Twitter followers of @All_Habs number almost 39,000.
So far be it from me to bite the hand that feeds us, but allow me to weave a tale of prudence.
My word of caution and responsibility is primarily directed to prospects of the Montreal Canadiens who have now crossed that line into the public realm. Their messages are no longer being read by only friends or family members. This form of communication comes with new rules, some of which are still evolving, but require the young athletes to have a sharpened awareness of how their words may impact others and the organization that they represent.
I know what you are thinking — this is all a bit too general. Perhaps it would be helpful to look at the emergence of Twitter in the domain of sports to help our understanding.
As helpful or as innovative as technology is, it doesn’t get the mainstream label of “cool” until it’s adopted and promoted by celebrities. Twitter got noticed back in 2009 when Ashton Kutcher became the first user to have more than one million followers. Since then pop stars Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber have surpassed the 10 million follower mark.
In sports, Shaquille O’Neil was an early adopter — his retirement in June of this year was announced via Twitter. Lance Armstrong seemed to be equally committed to cycling and documenting his race through Twitter even details of a crash in the eighth stage of the 2010 Tour de France.
With respect to the landscape of the Montreal Canadiens, Mike Cammalleri had the attention of fans almost all to himself for a half season having joined during the playoff run of 2010. Cammalleri has done some interesting things tweeting behind-the-scenes photos and recently engaging Twitter followers in a Q & A session.
For athletes, they can bypass the media and deliver their message directly to their supporters. Fans appreciate the seemingly one-on-one access. It’s a perfect marriage of sports hero, adoring public and technology — or is it?
If you have been on Twitter you have been exposed to athletes being constantly pestered for a retweet or a follow. And it’s not just from the fans. One well-known Montreal newspaper hack sent a self-promoting tweet (complete with signature) to PK Subban when he joined Twitter in the hopes of getting a follow.
After an initial period of openness, for the most part, athletes revert to tweeting homogenized messages similar to the cliched remarks they provide reporters in the locker room. They have to, or occasionally find themselves doing damage control.
Ask Dan Ellis. Whining about money and the resulting backlash chased the Anaheim goaltender from Twitter. Tweets expressing sympathy for Osama Bin Laden landed Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall in all sorts of hot water.
Twitter is an open communication tool. For every fan expressing adoration there a several who have unkind things to convey. After his season-ending injury, the Canadiens Max Pacioretty was exposed to all sorts of vile messages of hate from ignorant Bruins fans.
Sometimes, when comments cross the line, players strike back.
Recently former Habs player Brent Sopel announced on Twitter that he had signed a two-year deal to play in the KHL. One user immediately launched into a disturbing barrage of criticism for Sopel ending with “I hope his plane crashes en route to Russia.” Sopel didn’t mince words, replying “GO F**K YOURSELF! I HAVE KIDS”
Many hockey fans applauded Sopel’s outburst — partly approving the defenseman’s bluntness in standing up for himself. But it was more than that. NASCAR fans wait through seemingly endless numbers of laps as race cars predictably navigate an oval until a crash occurs — Twitter users wade through hours of tedious tweets from followees and melba toast comments from athletes waiting for a ‘Sopel moment.’
One of those unscripted moments happened in June during the NHL Entry Draft. With the 17th pick overall, the Montreal Canadiens selected Nathan Beaulieu. Many fans and journalists didn’t realize that despite the name, Beaulieu was an anglophone from Strathroy, Ontario.
After receiving comments and questions in a language he couldn’t understand, Beaulieu responded like a typical teenager on Twitter with a blunt message to the Canadiens fanbase saying that he didn’t speak French. The problem is that once he pulled the jersey over his head, and wore the CH on his chest, he was no longer a regular teenager. He was a first-round draft choice of the most-storied franchise in hockey.
Shortly after his minor gaffe (and presumably after some coaching from the Canadiens communications staff) Beaulieu’s tweet was deleted and replaced with a much more politically-correct version: “To all MTL fans, my name in (sic) Beaulieu, but I can’t speak french, but my plan is to learn asap.”
The santitized version may not be as desirable as the gut-response statements that some fans crave. But where does the line get drawn? And who draws it?
In introducing this piece I used the words prudence, awareness and responsibility that should be adopted by the Canadiens young prospects to guide them in their use of social media. They must be aware that they have been given an opportunity of which few can dream but with that opportunity comes responsibility. Some may feel that the team has a role to play in guiding players.
My friend, HabsWatch and I discussed this tonight as a drama played itself out publicly on Twitter. On the surface, it was a young girl who had apparently caught her boyfriend cheating — angry words were exchanged. But this wasn’t just any teenage couple, it was the Canadiens future defenseman Beaulieu and his girlfriend Kyla.
One of the harshest tweets was deleted but what remained signalled that Kyla was not happy writing “you are dead to me” and “Truth comes out !!!! Seeee yaaa” For Nathan’s part, he used the Anthony Weiner defense claiming that his girlfriend’s phone had been compromised.
Whatever the truth is, Beaulieu must start acting like a professional. There is a trend towards self-expression to a degree without any filters particularly among teenagers but Beaulieu and all young prospects must realize that spotlights are already on them, and not all of them are friendly. As HabsWatch wrote, “Want to earn the millions teams have invested in them? Start acting like an adult and work on a pro mentality, beginning draft day.”
Beaulieu is certainly the most high-profile of the prospects so extra attention will be paid to him. But the advice about acting like a pro applies to everyone. As a potential future goaltender of the Canadiens Peter Delmas probably shouldn’t be tweeting “i’d like to bend her over and show her the 50 states if u know what i mean.”
Despite their young age, there are a few prospects who seem to understand that they can no longer freely broadcast the way their friends do. Morgan Elllis and Robert Mayer tweet in a responsible way apparently realizing who their audience is and who they represent.
Communication, sports coverage and the access to athletes is undergoing a fundamental change. The purpose of presenting examples is not to expose any athlete but to ignite a discussion about what is and what is not appropriate in this new paradigm. Do we really want to see the lives of our sports heroes play out in a sort of reality series through social media?
This article will likely yield debate from those who would like more access into the private lives of all Canadiens players vs. those who worry about tarnishing the image of the players and the brand of the hockey club. Help add to the discussion by sharing your views in the comments section below.
To keep track of Montreal Canadiens players and prospects who use Twitter, be sure to follow our list at @All_Habs.