“Don’t come back to campus.”
The Twitter volcano had erupted, spewing vicious words onto Cade Foster.
“I’m gonna kill you and your family.”
The 22-year-old senior had missed three field goals against Auburn in 2013, helping cost Alabama a shot at a third consecutive national title. Over the next 24 hours, his Twitter handle (@Foster_43) drew more than 12,000 mentions.
Athletes have long been trained to ignore newspaper coverage and talk radio, to avoid criticism and block out the noise after the games end. But the proliferation of Twitter and the social media platform’s 302 million users allows vitriol to hit people in a place that’s hard to avoid, especially for this phone-clutching generation of college athletes.
“It’s very natural for 20-year-old kids, first thing after the game, to go check Twitter,” said the Gophers’ Richard Pitino, one of three Big Ten men’s basketball coaches to ban his team from Twitter last season. “That’s just part of being a student athlete in today’s world. Everybody can say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t bother me.’ That’s nonsense. If it didn’t bother you, you wouldn’t read it.”
“Everybody can say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t bother me.’ That’s nonsense. If it didn’t bother you, you wouldn’t read it.”
And most do read: One firm’s national survey of 1,000 college athletes found that nearly three out of four are on Twitter. Less than half have had social media training, however, and experts, campus leaders and coaches are concerned about how young athletes handle the love and the hate lighting up their phones.
Twitter debuted in 2006 and quickly became a common place where athletes interact with fans. “Twitter is the world’s biggest sports bar,” said Kevin DeShazo, founder of Fieldhouse Media, a firm that trains colleges and athletes on social media. “That’s where fans are going to get more access.”
Gophers women’s basketball coach Marlene Stollings said Twitter’s impact on the college sports landscape is “immeasurable.”
“It’s a great way to reach out indirectly to recruits and to speak about our program and package it in a way that we choose,” she said. “That’s something we try to take advantage of daily.”
Stollings also sees the effect social media can have on her players’ concentration. At the hotel on nights before road games, the coach collects her players’ phones.
‘Just joking around’
Athletes might want to share their thoughts directly with fans, but by putting themselves on Twitter, it gives the public an opening to reply directly to the athlete. Sometimes the results aren’t pretty.
Tweets of fewer than 140 characters — shorter than this paragraph — have become giant forces affecting athletes’ psyches.
Sam Dekker helped lead Wisconsin over an undefeated Kentucky team in the Final Four, setting up a championship showdown with Duke. But Dekker went cold in the title game, going 0-for-6 from three-point range in the five-point loss.
Afterward, the TV cameras showed Dekker crying on his way to the locker room. His Twitter feed (@Dekker) immediately featured an outpouring of support from Wisconsin fans. Others gave him a piece of their mind:
“@Dekker — YOU BLEW IT”
“@Dekker — Use your d-league money to pay my bookie.”
“@Dekker — Go work at McDonald’s.”
Dekker must have read at least some of it, as he posted a message for his 103,000 followers: “Twitter folk love when people fail.”
Eric Brooks, or @EBrooksUncut, sent the “YOU BLEW IT” tweet complete with a picture of Adam Sandler screaming those same words in the movie “Billy Madison.”
Brooks, who grew up near Milwaukee, explained that the Badgers are a major rival of his two favorite schools — Marquette and Minnesota. He attends Edgewood College in Madison and has five roommates who attend Wisconsin.
“I just like poking fun at Badger players/fans,” Brooks said, when contacted via Twitter. “Honestly it was just me joking around.
“It’s not like we really think, ‘Oh, this is going to rattle this player.’ But that off chance that it gets to him makes it worthwhile. It’s like when student sections do homework on rival players to find something to rattle them at the free throw line, but just on Twitter.”
Jimmy Sanderson wrote the 2011 book, “It’s A Whole New Ballgame: How Social Media is Changing Sports,” and has continued researching the subject as the director of Clemson’s sports sommunications BA program.
“When I was growing up, if I got mad at an athlete, by the time I sat down and wrote a letter to the newspaper or called into a radio show, I was generally cooled down,” Sanderson said. “But with social media, man, as soon as an athlete makes a mistake, we just whip out our phones and send the message while we’re still on that emotional high.”
Sports fans aren’t directing their anger just at college athletes, of course, but unlike their pro counterparts, college athletes often lack experience in dealing with fans. They also aren’t being paid millions to help thicken their skin. LeBron James, for example, takes daily abuse on Twitter, but with endorsements, he makes an estimated $70 million per year. He’s also had more than 13 years of practice in the heckling game.
“I think the older somebody is, the less it might bother them,” Sanderson said. “But at a young age, that’s what matters — what people are saying about them online.”
So why would an athlete ever go on Twitter in the first place?
For one thing, as Sanderson put it: “You would want to know what hundreds of thousands of people are saying about you.”
Twitter is also where most of young athletes’ friends are: Many college students have practically lived on there for five-plus years. In its survey of 1,000 college athletes, Fieldhouse Media found that 73 percent have a Twitter account, and 94 percent are on Facebook.
Facebook might be where college athletes have kept up with friends and family members, but on Twitter, many athletes go public to give fans a peek behind the curtain.
“People can see a different side of you,” former Gophers running back David Cobb said. “They can see that you’re not always this serious competitive guy, that you like to laugh around and joke. It can kind of connect you a little bit.”
The Gophers’ Mitch Leidner started using Twitter last year, while gearing up for his first season as a full-time Big Ten starting quarterback. It all seemed fun before the games started. But people began unloading on him after he had four turnovers in the team’s September loss at TCU.
“I went on just to delete [the account] and looked at a couple things,” Leidner said in December. “I was like, ‘Wow, people are pretty ruthless on here.’ ”
Pitino banned his team from the site after a 2-7 start to Big Ten play.
“I just think in today’s world, during the season, the more noise you block out the better,” Pitino said. “I don’t think it’s our fan base or our media or anything. I just think it’s better to not listen to any of it, good or bad. When things are good, you shouldn’t be reading it either.”
Point guard DeAndre Mathieu was among those who had looked. He was clearly stung during the Gophers’ early-season slump. Mathieu said one of the tweets directed his way said someone should punch him in the face, and before the team ban, Mathieu posted, “Now they saying I don’t belong here.”
Even when Mathieu wasn’t looking at Twitter, his girlfriend sometimes kept tabs for him.
“Some of the stuff is just out of control. You think like, 'What did I do to make this person this mad?'”
“I think it’s pretty funny,” Mathieu said. “Some of the stuff is just out of control. You think like, ‘What did I do to make this person this mad?’ But then again, some people are really passionate about their sports.”
Mathieu can relate. He’s done a little heckling on Twitter himself.
“I’m a big LeBron fan, and sometimes I go off on LeBron for not being LeBron James,” he said. “So I can understand how they feel.”
The other two Big Ten teams to ban players from Twitter last season were Iowa and Purdue. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery had no problem with the medium until February 2014, when Zach McCabe missed a potential game-winning shot against Wisconsin. Fans went after McCabe on Twitter, and he responded with an expletive, prompting McCaffery to close ranks the rest of the season.
Pitino’s father, 720-game winner Rick Pitino, has long kept his Louisville team off Twitter during the season. The players are allowed to use it from April through September but restricted for the other months.
DeShazo, the Fieldhouse Media founder, said a better approach is educating the athletes on how best to use Twitter.
“Banning it does no good,” he said. “They may not tweet, but they’re still going on there [to read what others are saying] all day long.”
Part of their education
DeShazo said the biggest mistake college athletes make with social media is failing to realize how big it is. Some think they are posting things for a close group of friends, forgetting how quickly their words can go viral.
“They’re brand ambassadors,” DeShazo said.
“Recruits are following them, parents of recruits are following them.”
Before quarterback Cardale Jones used his right arm to lift Ohio State to last season’s national championship, he used his thumbs to make a regrettable mistake.
In October 2012 he tweeted, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”
Of the college athletes surveyed by Fieldhouse Media, 45 percent said they have had no social media training.
The Gophers hold preseason sessions for each of their sports programs with Michelle Voss, their assistant director of social media. Senior associate athletic director Chris Werle said the education goes well beyond those sessions, with constant discussion along the way.
“We’re developing student athletes for whatever they’re going to go on to next,” Werle said. “Part of whatever that entails is teaching them how to use their own social media and what they’re going to do in their careers for the rest of their life.”
Werle said a Gophers athlete could sit down with a corporation for an interview and describe the ways he or she used social media to advance the team’s cause.
“The last thing we want to do is bury their personality,” Werle said. “Selfishly we don’t want to do that because it’s their uniqueness that tells the story to fans.”
‘Here to stay’
When the Gophers football team upset Nebraska in 2013, Cornhuskers receiver Kenny Bell dropped two key passes. That night, something much sadder happened to Bell, when his dog got hit by a car. He watched his beloved pooch vomit blood.
After visiting the vet, he tweeted about his dog’s ordeal, and some fans breezed right past the sympathy. “Sorry about your dog,” one replied. “But you guys basically did the same thing on the field today. Embarrassing. Huge fan. Disappointed.”
Kelly Mosier, Nebraska’s digital communications director, has taken steps to help the school’s athletes navigate moments like that with its intense fan base.
“What Twitter has done,” Mosier said, “is take some of the stuff you would hear in the stands — some stuff that would be absolutely objectionable to players — and they’re able to put it essentially right in their face.”
In November, Mosier went on the offensive when the Cornhuskers fell hopelessly behind Wisconsin in a key Big Ten West showdown. Using the @Huskers account, which has nearly 200,000 followers, Mosier reminded people to direct their comments to that account and not toward individual players.
Mosier said his department has cultivated relationships with some fans on Twitter to help them “self-police” the discussion. If someone writes something rude directly to Nebraska athletes, they might hear from other friendlier fans to “make their criticisms constructive,” Mosier said.
“They can still have that conversation,” Mosier said. “Just keep it out of [the athletes’] face a little bit more.”
With Twitter, there are countless lessons to come.
“Social media is only about seven years old, so we’re still kind of really in the infancy when you think about it,” Sanderson said. “I think a lot of coaches, initially, were hoping Twitter would be something that would just come and go like M.C. Hammer pants. But this is here to stay.”
Star Tribune staff writer Amelia Rayno contributed to this story.