The most tempting new trap in the NFL is free, attractive and alarmingly simple. Futures are promised and careers are threatened, all in 140 characters or less.
As the league, its teams and hundreds of players adjust to the newest trend in technology and fan connection, they're all learning at the same time that Twitter and other social networking sites are the league's newest Venus fly trap: come on in and get comfortable — but know that there are consequences.
Bobby Wade is a Chiefs wide receiver. His marketing man advised him last month to start a Twitter account. Said it'd be good for his future. Wade is 28, and he knows an NFL player's career can end any time. He heard that social networking might offer him exposure. He might want to do radio of television someday. It's nice to have options.
So he registered the Twitter username 80bobbywade, started a blog and a Web site, and tried to begin learning what amounts to a new language. Shortened words and slang phrases, followers and retweets, Trending Topics and Follow Fridays — it's overwhelming for Wade, but he's going along with it because it seems like the right thing to do. Besides, what could it hurt?
"It's really, really new to me," Wade says.
"I know one thing that comes with it is trouble," he says.
Wade is standing on this day in the Chiefs locker room. He finishes his discussion and heads toward the shower. Two lockers down, the equipment is undisturbed, and No. 27 jersey hangs without wear. It's Larry Johnson's locker, and he is suspended in part for making disparaging comments on his Twitter page. He called out coach Todd Haley, insulted a fan's profile picture, and ridiculed some of his followers because they weren't millionaires like Johnson.
On Oct. 25, Johnson tweeted to one follower: "Sorry ur a cornball n ur mom birthed u broke. But I'm cakn patna. While u work or school for 5 dollas n hour. Ha!"
Johnson's agent, Peter Schaffer, said later that his client was frustrated that the Chiefs had lost again a few hours earlier on that Sunday. Johnson needed to vent. Twitter was there.
For the first time, the NFL had its example of what not to do on social-networking sites. And it gave a startling look at how the combination of frustration and electronic ease and access can produce career dynamite and distract an organization that, because of its 1-6 record, needs nothing of the sort.
Johnson's online rant set off a storm of questions about how the NFL should regulate players' profiles, if at all, and if teams could or should temper what players say. After all, players are taught in league-mandated media training that it's best — but hardly an enforceable law — to avoid public criticism of their team, coaches, teammates or fans. Players are taught that such words carry thorns, and those thorns draw blood.
Now two weeks after Johnson logged in hours after a blowout loss to San Diego, the debate continues: Can and should the NFL or its teams stop players from expressing themselves, regardless of the format? Was Johnson's series of tweets truly conduct detrimental to the team — that's what he was suspended for — or simply a case of a player setting foot into a new realm of freedom of speech?
"If you feel it, speak your mind," says Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, whose own Twitter profile has more than 25,000 followers. "You just know that when you write it down and press send, the whole world gets to see it.
"You always want to kind of think about what you're writing about."
For now, that's all the NFL really asks. Earlier this year, the league embraced Twitter as the next great marketing tool. The league started noticing the network's popularity, and it emphasized tweeting during the NFL draft last April. When the first preseason game kicked off this year, thousands of people knew that instant updates, colorful descriptions and recognizable names were simply a login away.
"The Twitter equivalent of flashbulbs going off at a stadium," says Brian McCarthy, the NFL's vice president of corporate communications. "It was Super Bowl-like in terms of the number of people tweeting out: 'Football is back.'"
Commissioner Roger Goodell tweets (more than 26,000 followers), and so do several executives. McCarthy (nearly 9,000 followers), says that Twitter offers a new frontier of exposure, a way for players to connect with fans, and, yes, some tempting ways to misuse the service.
"Our office has embraced it," McCarthy says. "It takes the helmets off these players; personalizes them in a manner that is unique and compelling. It's the next step.
"But it's important to keep in mind: Just because it's new and different doesn't mean the rules have changed."
The problem is that the league's rules governing Twitter haven't yet been defined. Players are told by their team's media relations staff — the Chiefs were given a comprehensive presentation during the offseason on being smart with the media, including how they used social networking sites — with a simple offering of wisdom: use common sense. But for now, the only written rule is that players cannot tweet during part of game days, from 90 minutes before kickoff until after mainstream media interviews are completed following the game's conclusion.
As other examples of misbehavior, such as Johnson's rant, begin to become clear, the league is waiting to take a stand one way or the other on how to police players' use of Twitter. Those players' images are their own, but in some ways they also belong to the NFL. That's why Johnson's dubious tweets were seen as destructive. He wasn't just representing himself on that Sunday night; he was representing the Chiefs, the NFL, Kansas City and players everywhere — many of whom flock to Twitter for one primary reason: freedom to express and market themselves as they see fit.
"To me," Wade says, "I think that's the benefit: being able to possibly give some insight to what I might be thinking and what's going on."
McCarthy says the NFL is glad players share their thoughts and experiences on Twitter and have allowed some fans into their daily lives. Some take it more seriously than others. The undisputed Twitter kings are Buffalo wide receiver Terrell Owens (more than 240,000 followers and several tweets per day) and Cincinnati wideout Chad Ochocinco (nearly 350,000 followers and sometimes dozens of tweets per day). They share details of their travel schedules, Owens' reality-television ventures, and Ochocinco's plans, whether he's serious or not, to turn his Twitter empire into a news network.
For his part, Jones-Drew tweets about his television-watching schedule and alerts his followers of his weightlifting routine. He says he's as surprised as anyone that people find it interesting, but knowing now that they are, he's happy to oblige. Jones-Drew and Wade are, according to McCarthy, among about 175 current players who maintain Twitter profiles. As long as they're smart about it, McCarthy says, there should be no problems. But just in case: McCarthy says the league might work into upcoming collective-bargaining discussions the proper use of Twitter and other networking sites.
"We'll simply adapt," McCarthy says.
So if the league endorses tweeting, and players are eagerly signing up, then why are some teams hesitant to embrace it? The Chiefs, who use Twitter to deliver news and spread public-relations initiatives, would prefer that players find better uses of their time. The team believes that, if it doesn't directly help win games, then it could potentially hinder that pursuit. That is to say nothing of Johnson's outburst two weeks ago.
Haley and general manager Scott Pioli agree that they don't understand Twitter or see its benefit. But their opinions diverge on one thing: Haley says he doesn't feel compelled to learn about the technology, joking that text messaging is complicated enough, but Pioli admits that he probably should educate himself on Twitter if he is to understand players' attraction to it, as well as its benefits and potholes.
"It's something I need to get to know better," Pioli says.
That goes for everyone involved. Jones-Drew says he's uncertain of what the benefits are of using Twitter, other than offering a fresh morsel to a fan base with an ever-expanding appetite. He admits that if he goes too far, then he'll accept the consequences. He says it's refreshing that, for better or worse, that when he tweets something, the words are his.
"You're being your own reporter," he says. "What you say is what you say. It's not, 'The reporter took my words out of context,' or whatever. It's, 'What you said is what you said.'"
Even if what he says is perceived as harmful to his team, his community or his image? If Johnson's episode taught Twitter users anything, it's that an explosive tweet is anything but silent — or easily forgotten.
"Whatever he wrote," Jones-Drew says, "obviously he meant it. You just have to man up, and if that's what you said, you just take it with the consequences that come with it."
Most players would prefer to avoid that brush with danger. It's a Wednesday after practice in the Chiefs locker room, and Wade is thinking about the future. He says that Twitter isn't the place for sharing his frustrations or work-related opinions. Wade says he knows better than to share his frustrations on a public forum; he says he leans on his wife to be that sounding board. McCarthy says that's a good line of thought: He says an executive for a major corporation wouldn't tweet disparaging thoughts about his company, either, so why would an NFL player?
Wade admits he'll continue using Twitter, but his reasons are different than some others. He says he'd like to make money, whether directly or not, by tweeting. He admits he has no idea how that'll happen. He says it could help expand his fan base, and it might help him appear better-rounded when his playing days are finished.
Wade pulls off his Chiefs jersey and grabs a towel.
"As far as making money while playing, I don't know what kinds of benefits you could have to that," he says. "I'm still trying to sort that out a little bit. Hopefully some opportunities will present themselves. I just haven't seen them yet."