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Keeping you posted

Social networking sites help sports figures stay in touch with fans

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / July 3, 2009

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The sports world’s eager embrace of social media like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter is giving fans greater access to their favorite athletes. Fans are privy to the humorous, the informative, the inane, and the fraudulent. The bigger the name, the bigger the draw for would-be imposters. And the bigger the virtual, viral headache.

In recent weeks, misrepresentations on social media have led to a lawsuit from St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, a skin cancer denial by Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and an awkward situation for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Forward Kevin Love unwittingly broke news via Twitter that coach Kevin McHale would not return.

For every legitimate ticket giveaway by Paul Pierce via Twitter, there are countless impersonators, name squatters, and parody designers. While pretending to be athletes is sport for some, it is a growing concern for leagues, teams, and athletes with identities and brands to protect.

“[Social networking] is a nice way to connect authentically with people,’’ said New Jersey Devils goaltender Kevin Weekes, one of the first NHL players on Twitter. “But I can see [the teams’] point of view with their concerns. We all have our level of comfort with expressing ourselves. It can be potentially very positive. It can also be destructive. Once you put something out there, there’s no means of retracting it.’’

Advocates and critics of social media sites repeatedly liken Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, and others to the Wild West. Depending on the site, there are few, if any, regulations governing content or preventing impersonations. Leagues, teams, and athletes find themselves negotiating tricky territory. They recognize the value of more direct contact with fans. They also know an ill-timed “tweet’’ or fake Facebook page can create a web of problems.

Most major sports organizations, including the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL, are putting in place social media guidelines. They are also educating athletes about the benefits and drawbacks of social sites. In light of locker room tweeting by NBA players, Patriots coach Bill Belichick cautioned his players about social networking. To help protect against impersonators, the Bruins will use CoTwitter next season, allowing multiple players to tweet under the same, easily verified team account. Before the recent NBA draft, the league reminded teams not to tweet picks before they were announced on television.

La Russa sued Twitter because someone created a fake account using the manager’s name and gave the false impression La Russa was tweeting. The fake tweets made light of La Russa’s 2007 drunken driving arrest and the deaths of two Cardinals pitchers. The suit claimed the fake tweets hurt La Russa’s trademark rights.

“There is some good law to the fact that you cannot impersonate somebody and call it a parody and get away with it,’’ said La Russa’s attorney, Gregory McCoy. “You have to be that person, if you’re holding yourself out as the person. If you’re not, then both the publisher and the carrier of that information can be sued and have it shut down. As a consequence of that, various sites are going to develop better policing mechanisms and timely responses.’’

But too much oversight may backfire. Part of the fan appeal of Twitter microblogging is that messages are seemingly unfiltered, leaving the impression of true, insider access. Still, following publicity about the La Russa lawsuit, Twitter launched a verification system designed to stem the tide of fake accounts. Legitimate celebrity accounts carry a checkmark next to the words “Verified Account.’’ Other companies are rapidly ramping up identity protection measures.

Ironically, the best strategy for avoiding identity theft today may be for the victim to open an account and counteract the fraud directly.

Taking back control
When Shaquille O’Neal and his management team learned of a Twitter impersonator using the NBA superstar’s name, they wanted to take legal action. Media strategist Kathleen Hessert convinced O’Neal to open his own Twitter account under the handle The Real Shaq. The rest is Twitter history.

Since O’Neal joined Twitteronia, as he calls it, he has amassed almost 1.5 million followers in 7 1/2 months, easily topping the circulation of major newspapers and undoubtedly interesting companies with products to market. Although O’Neal tweets run the gamut, they usually give expressions to his large, fun-loving side.

“Shaq’s not known for his basketball,’’ said Hessert. “He’s known for his humor on Twitter. What do you want to be known for? You have to define why you’re doing it first, if you’re going to be good. What is your goal and how do you get to that goal? People in sports understand that. It’s not going to help [an athlete’s] brand if they get out there and they do it poorly.’’

Hessert travels North America teaching athletes and other sports figures how to tweet best. Her advice covers content, as well as the protective measures athletes should take.

She sees no problem with the 7-foot-1-inch O’Neal tweeting about a personal ticket giveaway at a street corner, but wouldn’t advise 5-2 Danica Patrick to do the same. A vacationing athlete with a well-known home might want to keep his whereabouts artfully hidden in social media messages.

“I don’t really put personal detail onto pages,’’ said Boston Breakers defender Alex Scott, who had an overzealous fan create a fake Facebook page in her name. “I know on Facebook people put up really personal photos. I don’t do that because I know fans are following. I let them know what I’m doing, but not too much detail about my day-to-day routine.’’

For athletes and organizations alike, the upside still far outweighs the downside. Media channels that can communicate directly with fans are valuable assets. Major professional sports organizations and most colleges have regularly updated social media accounts. Pro commissioners, owners, coaches, even mascots tweet. At the same time, their leagues and teams carefully monitor social media posts for both feedback and fraud.

“There’s always been potential for identity theft in the real world and in the virtual world,’’ said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. “We talk to our players at the Rookie Symposium and throughout the year at the club level about the dangers of something like Twitter. With technology advancing, there are safeguards being built in that should alleviate that problem.

“The more pressing concern is making players aware what they say on Twitter and what they put on Facebook is on the record and being seen by potentially millions of people worldwide.’’

The recent, rapid growth of Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook has, in some instances, left those companies ill equipped to handle fraud. Like La Russa’s lawyer, International Olympic Committee attorney Jim Bikoff encountered difficulty reaching Twitter. The IOC wants to take control of accounts established with trademarked Olympic names.

“If the International Olympic Committee cannot open an account for ‘Olympic’ on Twitter, then something’s wrong,’’ said Bikoff. “If these companies don’t take steps, who knows? There may be legislation. There may be a congressional investigation. And there’s probably going to be more litigation. When you don’t have easy communication with these companies, there’s not much choice except to file litigation.’’

Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook were all contacted for this article. In an e-mail, Angie Allgood, MySpace’s director of talent relations and content, said the company works “directly with the talent reps or the talent themselves to authenticate the profiles in question’’ and add them to its official Celebrity Directory. Allgood maintained that MySpace “offers celebrities a safe and controlled environment to share their thoughts and stories with fans.’’

Facebook said it was unable to provide a representative for comment about sports clientele and verification procedures.

Twitter failed to respond to multiple interview requests.

Concerns are valid
As a Twitter fan and diehard Bruins fan, Brendan Wilhide took interest in the account of defenseman Shane Hnidy. Wilhide figured it was an opportunity to learn more about a player outside the Bruins crew of young superstars. Wilhide never imagined anyone would impersonate Hnidy on Twitter.

“I would expect to see a fake account for someone like Marc Savard or Tim Thomas or Milan Lucic before I see an account for Shane Hnidy,’’ said Wilhide. “Why would someone fake him? You think, ‘It must really be him.’ You click on it, then it turns out to be a fake and you feel kind of empty.’’

As creator of the website Sportsin140.com, which validates athlete Twitter accounts, Wilhide knows how crafty impersonators can be. After wondering if his favorite athletes’ Twitter accounts were real, Wilhide started Sportsin140 (named for the character limits on tweets) as a hobby. Using skills learned in minor league baseball public relations, he created a validation process that relies on team, league, and athlete sources, as well as a Twitter contact, though his list is by no means exhaustive.

Red flags for fake accounts start with nonsensical information. For example, messages that don’t jive with what is known about an athlete’s schedule. Then, there are the fake posts that bait rivals nonstop. If Wilhide sees a Bruins account that does nothing but trash the Montreal Canadiens, he figures it’s fraudulent. The same goes for accounts with vulgar content. The toughest cases are when impersonators take time to work lesser-known athlete bio information into tweets.

For sports organizations and athletes, one fake tweet can swell into a big PR problem and provide opponents with valuable bulletin-board material. When a fake Asante Samuel bragged the Philadelphia Eagles would win the Super Bowl, the Philadelphia Daily News ran with the tweet. Upon learning the account was fake, the paper apologized.

While athletes are more aware of potential tweeting pitfalls, it has not diminished their affinity for Twitter. The portability and speed of Twitter appeal to athletes who don’t have typical 9-to-5 jobs and sometimes chafe against the restrictions of traditional media. If a player believes he’s being misrepresented in the press, he can tweet his point of view immediately. He doesn’t have to wait and relay his gripe through a third party.

“Either you’ve got players who are smart with how they run their lives and interact with fans and friends or you’ve got players who can’t handle it,’’ said Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who has his own Twitter account. “You’re going to have some of both. In the long run, [social media] will be good. For the players, it will eliminate any illusion that they’re not public figures. They’ll know that everything they do they’ve got to pay attention to and watch what they say.’’

Teams use social media to draw attention to events traditional media might ignore. In the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons have Twitter accounts for everyone from president Rich McKay to groundskeeper Jim Hewitt to mascot Freddie Falcon.

“There’s a set of guidelines that we circulated internally that everybody lives by [for social networking],’’ said Falcons vice president of marketing Jim Smith. “All we’re trying to do is move fans up the scale from casual to avid . . . Figuring a way to harness the positives out of it is really what we’re trying to do. That is going to be a week-to-week challenge.’’

Tweeting regularly, Morey understands that challenge.

“I guess you’re supposed to tweet your ham sandwich or something,’’ said Morey. “I don’t have time for that. But whenever I’ve got inside info that we’re comfortable sharing, I’ll use it for that. At some point, if there’s a controversial thing we do and I’m trying to describe it in a direct way, we’re going to need it. I’m setting that up for down the road.’’

And Twitteronia will be following.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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