Study observes how athletes react to negative tweets, social media

Dr. Blair Browning,

By Linda Nguyen
A&E Editor

Imagine if your every movement was being scrutinized and you knew that with the click of a button, thanks to social media, it’s all readily available with a couple button-clicks or keyboard-strokes.

That is the reality for many celebrities and high-profile people, but it’s also a reality for student athletes as young as 18.

Dr. Blair Browning, assistant professor in the department of communications, co-authored a study with Dr. Jimmy Sanderson at Clemson University, which examined how student athletes use social media sites like Twitter deal with criticism.

Browning interviewed 20 student athletes from a NCAA Division 1 school.

“I had a high-profile student athlete in class in the spring,” Browning said. “Following a performance good or bad, he would look on Twitter. It struck me how ingrained in their lives social media had become.”

Browning said coaches at other schools have gone as far as banning student athletes from social media in order to protect them from making a critical error on social media.

“What we specifically looked at is how they respond to negative tweets directed towards them,” Browning said. “Criticism comes with the turf. They know criticism comes with playing at a higher level. These are collegiate students 18-20 years old and yet the wrath they receive online can be immense.”

Browning said he thinks part of the reason online social media can be harsh is because of the anonymity people have that comes with being behind a computer screen.

“Something we saw is a growing societal problem,” Browning said. “They are emboldened because they have the freedom to throw verbal daggers and not have to account for it.”

Browning said the criticism student athletes now receive is immediate.

“Ten years ago, it was hard to get these negative comments to student athletes,” Browning said. “We need to be educating them not only in how to use social media but also how to respond to messages they receive.”

Browning said there are several strategies student athletes can deal with negative feedback.

“They could ignore it,” Browning said. “It’s optimal, but it’s not ideal. We have pride that gets wounded and we want to respond, but is it worth escalating a Twitter battle with someone you don’t really know?”

Browning said many student athletes do not respond to a negative comment directly. Instead, they may retweet the negative comment and let their followers and fans respond or they can “subtweet.”

“Subtweeting is when you indirectly respond like, ‘one of my followers said,’ and they will say whatever that statement is, and they would refute that claim,” Browning said. “I thought it was a creative communication strategy. You’re getting your message out there without directly engaging the person who is sending that negative tweet.”

Browning said he encourages student athletes and people in general to think before tweeting.

“Hit pause before you hit send,” Browning said. “Especially at an educational institution, we need to be active in training our student athletes. It can be a great medium to engage fans, to build the brand, but the stories we usually hear about are the Twitter battles that get out of control.”

Browning said the implications for his research can also generalize to a larger platform.

“It’s like a press conference that never ends,” Browning said.

Sanderson said he found it interesting how ingrained Twitter is for student athletes.

“We asked them to quantify how often they check Twitter, the vast majority of them couldn’t quantify it,” Sanderson said. “Part of the reason could be the convenience of the app on their phones,looking every couple minutes, seconds.”

Sanderson said understanding how to use social media is important especially for athletes.

“I think first of all, people need to realize social media and Twitter are not going away,” Sanderson said. “It’s a big part of college students’ lives and their social experience. It’s no different for athletes. I don’t think schools can ignore it and act like it’s going to go away. There needs to be efforts to educate student athletes even at a high school level.”

Sanderson said high schools and universities should embrace social media education.

“They’re great and valuable tools if they’re used in constructive ways,” Sanderson said.