Pro Athletes' Tweets Give PR Staff Nightmares

The Lightning goalie's debate with fans sheds light on the developing dominance of social media in professional sports and how it continues to evolve.

New Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Dan Ellis is on Twitter (twitter.com/33dellis). Last week, he got into a bit of back-and-forth with some of his followers after he made a comparison between professional athletes such as himself and brain surgeons. His point was that both professions require a degree of specialized skill that average people just don't have, which is a valid assessment.

But of course, any time you invoke brain surgery (or rocket science) in a non-ironic comparison...

[People] say well that guy [Reggie Bush] makes too much money...well he earned it. Just like a brain surgeon makes tons of $, it took 15 more yrs than [you] put in to get that kind of pay. Any job I can think of that makes lots of cash..that person is a specialist. Meaning other [people] can not do the job as well. They train harder, are better educated or just plain blessed. They are not a dime a dozen unlike many other professions.

...you're going to get called on it. And that's exactly what happened:

"surgeons are saving lives, you are (trying to) stop black rubber!"

"That Tampa Bay contract went straight to your head."

"Keep digging the hole Dan, you're not getting sympathy from the fan base AT ALL."

"Pro athletes talking about their "tough lives" is just BS to me."

And Dan fired right back with retorts like this...

welcome to the conversation but try to stay on topic. There [are] good schools in Nash. Go to one and then join us again.

lets compare you for a second. You [are] a film producer so is James Cameron. JC movies are good=+$$$ Your films not so good=-$$$
I am not gonna block [you] yet [because] you are easy to toy with!!! Please tell me you have a 5 yr old writing your tweets!!!

These replies were aimed at one who says they are an IT tech and a fan of the Nashville Predators (Ellis' former team), as well as someone listed as a feature film producer.

Now when it comes to athletes creating controversy via something they said on Twitter, on a scale of 1 to, oh, let's say Cleveland Browns cornerback Brandon McDonald, this probably doesn't even rate a 0.5. But it does illustrate what is becoming a thoroughly modern problem for teams, specifically in terms of public relations.

Ellis speaks his mind, is entertaining and engages with fans, all of which is very good. Fans love their teams, but they love their players even more and getting to mingle with them is always a thrill. A lot of players don't have a mutual feeling about the mingling part and aren't thus inclined, so from that standpoint, I'm sure the Lightning PR department feels that having a guy like Dan Ellis on the team is a blessing.

But on the other hand, to have a guy like Dan Ellis questioning the education level, artistic merit, and maturity of (presumably) ticket-buying fans, most of whom, on a given night are less likely to be IT techs and film producers than they are members of some "dime a dozen" profession (not sure if Dan reads the business section of the paper, but with times the way they are, most jobs, even the crappy ones, are worth at least a quarter a dozen now) might feel like more of a curse. There aren't enough carefully orchestrated photo ops at hospitals and canned food drives to undo the damage that could be done by somebody like that really cutting loose.

So what to do? The lid is off the box, so to speak, and social media is bound to become even more prevalent than it is now. Too much control could result in fans getting bored and players feeling unfairly restricted and possibly disgruntled as a result. Not enough leaves a team vulnerable to having to waste valuable time and money on damage control.

Common sense and discretion would seem to be the obvious answers but those are intangibles that the "real" business world has not been able to effectively control when it comes to social media. And these intangibles are directly related to emotion, not just a dominant element of professional sports culture, but arguably the sports world's main product.

The NFL's Chad Ochocinco has been threatening to tweet live during Cincinnati Bengals games for years and did so during a preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles last Friday (to the tune of a $25,000 league fine). It's only a matter of time before some league allows it (my bet would be the NBA), either embracing it as an innovation or simply yielding to the inevitable.

And as someone who views sports as a form of entertainment first and foremost, I would hate to see people like Dan Ellis censored on any level. Sports is already over-saturated with far too many guys who speak in PR boilerplate about being happy to be part of a good squad where everybody contributes that will turn it around with hard work and who act like it's a huge behind-the-scenes moment when they reveal that they like to play golf in the off season.

Will leagues and teams initiate Twitter sensitivity classes, or try to establish and enforce some kind of standards and practices? I can't even imagine how something like that would be administrated (Twitter Czar?). And this is all without even taking the First Amendment into consideration.

Will effectively managing a team's social media presence come to have as much bearing on the overall success of an organization as scouting, strength & conditioning and marketing & promotion? It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out.

And you're liable to hear about it first from somebody like Dan Ellis.

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