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For tweets' sake: Sports world adjusts to new media

October 04, 2009|Eddie Pells and Paul Newberry | Pells and Newberry write for the Associated Press.

Lance Armstrong takes his message straight to his 2 million followers on Twitter. NASCAR signs up former newspaper writers-turned-bloggers to follow the sport in tough economic times.

The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball hire their own reporters to cover their leagues, while college conferences try to limit access to events in the lucrative Internet world, where websites such as Facebook can provide instant game coverage.

"When I log onto my computer in the morning, I'm putting up three screens," said NASCAR's Ramsey Poston, who launched a "Citizen Journalist Media Corps" this year. "I'm putting up the regular home page I have, I'm putting up Twitter and I'm putting up Facebook."

In an environment where newspaper circulation is declining and people get ever-more of their news through computers and cellphones, pressure has increased for round-the-clock updates on even the smallest developments from the sports world. That's created a power struggle over who delivers sports news.

Challenging the traditional media are leagues, conferences and the athletes themselves.

Who wins control of that information will have a direct impact on what fans know and when.

"One thing we constantly tell emerging students is that you may think, 'Who needs the middle man, when I can go right to the horse's mouth?' " said professor Robert Thompson, who teaches about television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "But what if the horse is constantly lying?"

Athletes, teams and leagues say communicating directly with fans is often the best way to say what they want without getting it twisted or filtered by the media, whom they often accuse of having agendas. Of course, those same sports groups have their own agendas, and those don't necessarily correspond to what the public wants or sometimes needs to know.

Part of the argument is rooted in human nature. Like everyone else, players want to be seen in the best light possible. Armstrong, for instance, often bypasses the traditional media completely. If reporters or anybody else want to know what Armstrong is up to, they often have to look on his Twitter page for quotes and updates, where there isn't the unpleasantness of follow-up questions.

Teams, meanwhile, have a long list of issues they'd prefer never become public. NFL teams, for instance, have long treated injuries and game plans like state secrets.

The Miami Dolphins went so far as to ban everyone -- not just players and reporters, but fans too -- from using cellphones during practice at training camp this summer. The decision restricted the information flow out of practice. It inconvenienced thousands of spectators but also saved reporters from the potentially awkward situation of being scooped by a fan posting an update -- be it on an injury or some other topic -- from the stands.

For the most part, though, the NFL encourages tweeting, with some limits. Before the regular season started, the league came up with formal guidelines, saying players and coaches can use sites such as Twitter and Facebook -- just not during games.

That means when Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco isn't on the field he can -- and does -- regale his 190,000-plus followers with his plans for the evening and his ever-growing schedule of TV appearances. There's hard news to be found too. New Orleans Saints rookie Malcolm Jenkins tweeted first word of his signing. And the Bengals announced their signing of first-round draft pick Andre Smith with -- you guessed it -- a tweet.

Other leagues have not issued formal policies on social media. But tennis officials posted signs before the U.S. Open warning players and their entourages to be careful on Twitter, saying some posts could violate the sport's anti-corruption rules by providing inside information.

Andy Roddick took issue with the warning -- in yet another tweet. "I understand the on-court issue but not sure they can tell us if we can't do it on our own time . . . we'll see," he wrote.

Soon after, Serena Williams used Twitter and her own website to apologize for her on-court tirade against the lineswoman who called her for a foot fault.

The "rules" governing new media change almost weekly, and on a person-by-person and team-by-team basis. In one 24-hour period this past week, Texas Tech banned the use of Twitter after a player criticized the coach, New York Jets receiver David Clowney got benched after tweeting about his playing time and the Miami Heat was banned from tweeting from the arena.

It's no wonder that some sports, such as the unwieldy conglomeration of conferences and schools that make up college football, have struggled to come up with quick solutions to new dynamics in the press box.

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