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Slippery slope of social media

Nate Thompson • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:05 PM

If I accepted a head coaching position at any level, high school, college or the pros, one of the first topics I would touch on with my new players wouldn't be the fundamentals.

I wouldn't focus all of my speech on traits that help good teams or players become great, like hard work, dedication or being held accountable as a good teammate.

I wouldn't spend all my energy stressing to student athletes the importance of fulfilling their academic requirements and making their studies priority No. 1. Heaven forbid, like they need to be reminded of that!

No, as silly as it seems, and maybe it is a sign that the Apocalypse is approaching, one of the first things on my agenda at that opening practice would be to warn my players about the dangers of social media.

As if coaches don't have already enough to worry about, this topic seems to be bringing up new controversies every week, none more mind-boggling than the newfound drama surrounding Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, which is either: A.) An online relationship gone terribly wrong due to a cruel joke; or, B.) An egotistical middle linebacker's desperate attempt to gain more publicity.

Whichever side of the fence you tend to lean towards, it's just another sign that social media creates more headaches and unnecessary pressure for athletes, coaches, and owners or administrators than I care to count.

For those who don't have the first clue on how to even turn on a computer, let me explain the problem.

Athletes sign up on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, where they create an online profile.

There's a number of reasons why they do this: Promoting themselves and their talent; connecting with their many “fans” or followers online; or simply to keep in touch with friends and family, often times, across the country.

To see that you have 500,000 followers on Twitter surely stokes up one's ego, whether you care to admit it or not.

I follow a large number of University of Michigan, Michigan State and in-state pro athletes on Twitter and I'd say 90 percent of their posts are strictly vanilla. Some are very funny, quite a few silly, and many are inspirational.

They may comment on interesting tidbits such as their life as a college or pro athlete or reflect on other newsworthy topics in the world of sports.

For example, one of the tweets (the messages posted on Twitter) from University of Michigan guard Nik Stauskas following the Wolverines' win against Minnesota on Thursday was a photo collage that a fan made him.

“A fan made this for me during warm ups today..Respect!” Stauskas wrote.

Of course, fans' messages on social media sites and especially on message boards aren't always sunshine and rainbows. Stauskas learned this the hard way following the Wolverines' first loss of the season on Sunday to arch-rival Ohio State.

Stauskas, the 6-foot-6 freshman guard from Canada who has become one of the best 3-point shooters in the country, had a miserable game against the Buckeyes, and was held scoreless for the first time this season.

According to a story from the Associated Press, Stauskas checked his Twitter account on his cell phone on the team's bus and to add salt to his fresh wounds, proceeded to read through countless negative responses from so-called fans, who surely weren't hiding the fact that he stunk up the joint.

Stauskas said he was upset and rightfully so. I can only imagine the pressure a major Division 1 college athlete must face and then to have this added on would only create more stress.

As a coach, Michigan's John Beilein said he worries about fans' venom shaking the psyche of his young players, but warns they have to possess thick skin. Stauskas isn't a lighting rod for controversy, but he did draw attention to himself over Christmas break, when he posted a homemade video of himself canning 45 out of 50 3-point shots on his family's backyard hoop.

Quite frankly, the more attention you draw to yourself on social media, the more likely it will come back to bite you in the butt down the road.  

“You have to understand when you're working to have a bunch of followers, there's going to be tons of haters in there,” Beilein said at a recent press conference. “We revisit it (with the players) often.

“Today's generation puts the stuff out there. You break up with someone and it's on Facebook. I'm not going to tie their hands and say you're not going to Tweet. They just have to understand being conservative with what you Tweet about your life.”

Controversy online is not only an issue in college, but for many high-level high school athletes as well. Logan Tuley-Tillman, a massive 6-foot-7, 320-pound offensive lineman from Peoria, Ill., who committed to Michigan last February, made headlines when he tweeted a photo of himself burning a recruiting letter from Ohio State. Soon after, he received death threats from incensed Buckeye fans.

Athletes have to be careful not only what they say, but what they do. Unfortunately for MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo, the fight between two of his players on Wednesday spread like wildfire online, because someone at the team's hotel posted about the incident to Twitter.

“Again, don't take this wrong, but if it wasn't for the Twitter era, it would be just another day,” Izzo said. “Unfortunately, the fight was in a hallway.”

It surely is a different world than the days when Izzo was filling up the hoop as a player in Iron Mountain. Today, it seems like everyone has a sharp opinion or critique of players or coaches, and it doesn't matter if that critic never picked up a basketball or football themselves in their life.

Thanks to the Internet, people can criticize, harass, make fun of, or even in weird cases, create fake people with make-believe illnesses. The sad thing is, these people — many of whom call themselves fans — are typically never held accountable for the painful words they preach.

Surely, the truth does hurt, as Stauskas and many others have found out, but maybe the greater truth is, if you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all.

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