In the middle of the biggest decision of his young professional life LeBron James showed up on Twitter of all places. During the week James had invited his friend, New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul, to participate in his Nike Skills Basketball Camp for young ballers. Paul apparently convinced James to start using Twitter. On July 5th, at 3:15pm James made his first tweet: ”Hello World, the Real King James is in the Building “Finally”. My Brother @oneandonlycp3 gas’d me up to jump on board so I’m here. Haaaa.”
Four days later James had sent seven tweets and accumulated 392,504 followers. He was one of top topics on Twitter in places like the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, and Great Britain.
While James may have been new to the Twittersphere many of his NBA friends were regular users. The role that social media is playing in pro sports is a fascinating yet largely unexamined phenomenon. This week as the NBA free agent frenzy heated up we got a glimpse of how networked media is creating a new sport landscape and culture.
During the NBA free agency period no athlete was more active with social media than Chris Bosh, the young power forward who announced earlier this week that he was joining another NBA superstar, Dwayne Wade in Miami. During the eight days between the official beginning of free agency and LeBron’s July 8th announcement, Bosh sent forty-four tweets. Several of his tweets announced which team he was meeting followed by a quick note on how the meeting went. Bosh never revealed any sensitive details about the high-stakes meetings. Still, the posts opened up the process to his fans, journalists, and the public. ESPN’s signature show, SportsCenter, began reporting regularly on Bosh’s tweets.
Bosh managed to strike an interesting and even intimate connection with fans. He expressed his anxiety about the big decision that awaited him: “Trying to ease my nerves. Tried to take a nap, but I can’t sleep…” Some of his tweets struck a philosophical note: “it’s funny how years come down to hours and minutes.” Like LeBron and the other big name free agents a lot was on the line for Bosh. For him, D. Wade, and LeBron this was not about what free agency is usually about—getting paid. If that were the case they each would have stayed with their respective teams and commanded the “maxium salary” package allowed by the players collective bargaining agreement with the owners. For Bosh, D. Wade, and LeBron the decision was about history and legacy. In short, it was about winning multiple championships and cementing their place in sport history. Social media was a clear part of the path they traveled together.
After appearing in Chicago to meet individually with the hometown Bulls, Bosh and Wade had dinner together. Following dinner, Bosh posted a picture of the two together and tweeted, “Just had dinner w @dwadeofficial. Great way to end day 1 of #freeagency although it feels like someone is missing……” In between Bosh and Wade was an empty chair. It was classic social media practice–playful, social, and casual.
The pic and the tweet were clear references to LeBron.
Some journalists and NBA owners derided Bosh’s use of social media. Apparently some NBA owners were baffled and bothered by Bosh’s enthusiastic use of Twitter. They interpreted it as a sign of unprofessionalism and narcissism. It was reported that management from his former team, Toronto, considered Bosh’s use of social media a sign of disrespect and disregard for the organization. Another report suggested that the owner of the Chicago Bulls expressed concerns about Bosh’s character when rumors began to swirl that Bosh was bringing cameras into the meetings with the various teams that were trying to recruit him. Bosh used Twitter to fire back at that particular allegation, “I don’t film my meetings. I am a professional. Having control of your own media is a distraction, but when other networks do it, it’s not?”
Bosh clearly enjoyed sharing his thoughts throughout the free agency process via Twitter. These young men are part of a generational wave and cultural ethos that has fully incorporated social media into their everyday lives. A 26-year old does not view the sharing of his or her life via social media as odd or disrespectful. If you know anything about young people’s engagement with social media the streaming of their lives and the public nature of their friendshps—what I like to call life-sharing—is how they live. We live in a different culture and the norms related to privacy and publicity are evolving. Even James’ decision to announce his decision on live TV is symptomatic of the ways life in the age of social media and reality TV continue to blur the lines between privacy and publicity.
The backlash against pro athletes and their use of social, mobile, and reality-based media represents what is in many respects a generation gap between today’s pro athletes, franchise owners, and the journalists that cover them. Bosh was not being disrespectful or unprofessional, he was simply doing what has become quite normative in his generation: using social media to stream his thoughts, life, and social networks. LeBron knew that the whole sportsworld was following his very move. So why not go on Twitter. Kevin Durant, the up and coming superstar in Oklahoma City, announced his new contract agreement via Twitter earlier this week.
As we learn more about the decision that Bosh, Wade, and LeBron made to team up together in Miami we see how social and mobile media were key parts of the process. Although they live in different cities and played for different teams the three maintained a close connection through networked media. They formed a bond that led to a strong desire to play together even if it meant earning less money on the contracts they will sign. And they certainly used new media to help them wrestle with the challenges of free agency.
Something else struck me about the LeBron saga: pro athlete’s are using social media as a source of community, solidarity, and support. Almost immediately after LeBron announced his plans to play for Miami many of his critics began to charge him with cowardice, disloyalty, and selfishness. Many of his professional friends and colleagues came to his defense. Ocho Cinco, the outspoken Cincinnati Bengal football player offered this observation via Twitter, “so when a #freeagent leaves he’s a traitor but when a team cuts your ass its part of the business.” Ocho Cinco’s sentiments undoubtedly represent a generation of athletes who have become richer and bolder in the face of public scrutiny. (See Twitterball for a discussion of Ocho Cinco). Chris Paul, who earlier in the week convinced LeBron to start using Twitter posted this, “Glad bron finally got that off his chest…NO ONE can possibly imagine how tough that decision was for him…wish him all the best!!!” Paul also retweeted OchoCinco’s post.
And Bosh simply said, “Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
This is just a sample of the tweets that pro athletes posted in support of LeBron. It represents an interesting moment in the history of the modern day athlete. At a time when the media spotlight directs a constant and sometimes callous glare they are using social media to shine their own light, offer their own perspective, and craft their own public image. Many pro athletes are using new media platforms to discuss personal and professional matters. They are also using social media to “talk back” in a very visible way to a public that can sometimes be uncivil in their treatment. And as we see in the aftermath of LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland athletes are also using social media as a way to maintain solidarity and show support for each other in the face of what they undoubtedly view as unfair public scrutiny.
Follow The Young and the Digital on Twitter @ scraigwatkins.