Sports timelines — sans Derek Jeter — read more like rap sheets than stat sheets. We’re not just in the midst of football season, but in ironic timing, the last four weeks have read what we might expect from “CSI: Gridiron.”
Take Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. On September 12 at 4:36 p.m. ET, Peterson was indicted for “reckless or negligent injury to a child.” Soon afterward, pictures of his bloodied and bruised son started to make their way around Twitter and other social media websites. By 5:04 p.m. ET the same day, the Vikings deactivated him for their Week 2 game against the New England Patriots. There was a subsequent reinstatement, another accusation and as Jerry Seinfeld might say, yada-yada-yada, by Wednesday, Peterson was placed on the NFL Exempt/Commissioner’s Permission List.
It used to be that professional athletes that got into trouble might have been privately reprimanded after their representatives and teams did their best to keep transgressions quiet. The worst that would happen, assuming there wasn’t an overzealous police officer involved, was a “you better not do this again” chat with a position coach. With social media at our doorstep each minute of every day, few miscues go unnoticed by the public anymore. As we found out with what may have been willful ignorance on the parts of the Baltimore Ravens and National Football League, nothing is private. Cameras are everywhere and as the saying says, a picture is worth a thousand words. It took just minutes for leaked investigative photos of Peterson’s 4-year-old son’s welt-covered body to cover online portals. Almost as quickly, people began to post their opinions whether the acts qualified as child abuse or parental discipline and what defined each.
As publicists, we used to advise that if you don’t want something shared with your grandmother and the world, don’t say it during a casual chat with a reporter. Today, publicists, attorneys and responsible sports agents advise their clients not to say anything under their breath if they don’t want it repeated. Privacy is that elusive.
Did social media and its public outcry result in harsher punishments for the NFL players? Did social media contribute to a middle-of-the-night change-of-heart by Florida State University to suspend its defending Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston for a full game instead of just one half versus Clemson?
It’s very possible. In the Ravens’ Ray Rice case, an initial 2-game suspension from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sparked social media uproar after a video was released of Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator. Something happened in there and it didn’t look good. It was social media that helped ignite even the most fringe football followers into a weeks-long discussion about the NFL’s attitude toward domestic violence. At the time, we thought that the only thing that would have made that outcry louder was if we actually saw Rice hit his fiancée. Lo and behold, on September 8th as Rice was ready to return to the Ravens’ practice field, a video of him cold cocking the woman we saw in the first video was released by TMZ.
There is something to be said about the influence of social media. It is instant. It is shared. It influences the way we watch and experience sports, politics, technology, and even our pets. It provokes emotion whether happy, sad, mad or glad. Its writers and sharers vie to be first, often inexplicably instead of making sure it’s right. It also helps spur action quicker than any other communication tool.
In our short attention span society, social media stories are also fleeting. Our breaking news today may qualify as little more than dust tomorrow. Harm a woman, child or another innocent however, and it fuels people to post their displeasure and what they believe to be appropriate repercussions.
Was social media the reason why the NFL, Ravens, Vikings and Seminoles changed their minds regarding punishments with after-hour about-faces? Those lashing out in 140 characters are, after all, the same consumers that buy tickets, merchandise and patronize businesses that spend millions of dollars on sports sponsorships. Yes, their online messages hold weight. Just how much we may eventually learn from each organization and those treated similarly going forward.