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Is Twitter getting us too close to sports figures?

November 3, 2011 - Ray Eckenrode

Our brother, John, is an officer and a gentleman. He’s a commander in the United States Navy who’s served this country for going on 20 years, including a tour of duty in Afghanistan. You get the picture. White uniform, shaved head, yes sir, no sir.

He’s also a rabid Steelers fan with a few opinions, a big mouth and a computer. That makes him like – well, it makes him just like 99.9 percent of Steelers fans (and football fans) out there, including the one writing this blog.

In the past, brother John’s opinions on James Farrior’s age and Bruce Arians' competence were relegated to bar talk or the occasional rambling phone call with our father. But Twitter changed that – for John-O and for all of us. Now those emotional ramblings and overblown theories can be put out there for the entire world to see. Most of the time, no one is listening and Twitter serves as one giant echo chamber. But every once in awhile, someone hears.

On Aug. 22, the Steelers were still trying to piece together an offensive line when they decided to bring back journeyman Trai Essex (who can play all three positions) instead of two other players they’d also cut, former starting tackles Max Starks and Flozell Adams. Commander Eckenrode, entitled to his opinion, tweeted:

@cdreck: Wow, how out of shape is @maxstarks78? #rhetorical

Now, you’ll notice that brother John didn’t just criticize Max Starks, he criticized him by using his Twitter handle, meaning that tweet would show up in Starks’ account under his “mentions” tab. While there’s debate in the emerging field of Twitter etiquette whether it’s proper to call out athletes by name or by handle in a tweet, the ultimate reality is that fans of every race, color, creed and national origin can now praise or criticize athletes directly on Twitter – and the athlete can choose to listen. Now, think about that for a second, things people only used to scream out in their living rooms can now be sent directly to the athlete or sports figure involved. Can you imagine some of the stuff that gets tweeted at athletes?

In his particular case, big Max read the derogatory comment and was none too happy about it, retweeting John’s dig a few hours later with this addendum:

@maxstarks78: I don’t play guard.

Ruh, roh.

Now, of course, we had a great chuckle over Commander Eckenrode ticking off the 6-8, 375-pound behemoth. In fact, we just happened to be playing John in fantasy football (for amusement only) that weekend and here was our smack talk: “Max Starks asked me to beat you up.” Ha! Hilarious, right? Good time, that is until this email popped into our inbox a few Sunday mornings ago:

tom_hart is now following you on Twitter

Wait, what?

Tom Hart as in the ESPN sportscaster we’ve been ripping in our blog the past rew weeks? That Tom Hart? The guy we said had a smooth voice and great delivery but was clueless about the actual action on the field? The guy we blasted in a tweet (by name but not by handle) for using the term “bottled up” to describe a 5-yard run? That Tom Hart? Yep. That one. There was no direct tweet, no DM, he’s just following @15MinutesBlog. He’s got his eye on us.

Our first reaction was a bit of regret. We checked out his page where he lists his occupation as “Dad, Mizzou grad and sportscaster.” The guy’s got kids. He went to a great journalism school. He was human now and not so much fun to throw darts at.

Will it change how we write about him in the future in our little sports blog that a couple hundred people read? How could it not? Welcome to 2011. What a world.

Pregame stretch, 11.04.11

Baltimore at Pittsburgh

8:20 p.m. Sunday, NBC

Announcers: Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth

Annoyance factor: You know we like Collinsworth more than most, but honestly, with how far Nantz and Simms have fallen, and with how little Gruden has improved despite his new contract, there’s not a network #1 team that even comes close to these two. To repeat, this is as good as it gets. Enjoy.

Referee: Walt Coleman

Competence factor: In case you didn’t notice, NFL officials had another terrible week last week (this is not a recording) in the big spotlight games with the missed TD and missed illegal bat in the Pats-Steelers game and the bizarre backward pass call in the Cowboys-Eagles game. This game figures to be an absolute nightmare to keep in check so it makes sense a veteran crew like Coleman’s is on the case. However, Ravens fans would tell you Coleman’s last appearance in this game didn’t go so well. That was in 2008 when he went under the hood and overruled the on-field judgment that San Antonio Holmes last-second catch came up just short of the goal line.

The line: Pittsburgh -3.5

Smarts say:That’s right, the Steelers are now favorites over a team they lost to by more than four touchdowns less than two months ago. Wow. What this line really says is that Vegas thinks these teams are dead even again with three points covering the home field and the one-half covering the Steelers “going public” again after beating the Pats. The over/under of 41.5 looks like 23-19 Steelers.

The pick: We’d like to preface this pick by saying we have no idea how good or bad the Steelers are. We really don’t. We declared their days of physical dominance over after the walloping the Texans gave them and they’ve responded by winning four straight games. Of course, they won those games by shifting to a near West Coast offense and by abandoning their legendary zone blitz and playing press coverage so maybe that fourth week really was the end of an era. Will they try the same scheme against Flacco? Common sense would seem to suggest if it stumped Brady, it should be more effective against the Ravens enigmatic signalcaller. But several experts we heard this week said the Steelers defensive plan against the Patriots was risky and born of desperation and won’t work in the long run now that it’s been committed to film. Of course, with the injury problems at linebacker, Dick LeBeau might have to invent another one-week desperation defense for the Ravens. However, we think the outcome boils down to one factor: whether Ben Roethlisberger carelessly turns the ball over as he did the first time these two teams played. After a four-game stretch that Merrill Hoge called “the best he’s ever played,” we fear Ben is due for a stinker…Ravens 24-13.

Last week: Of course, we were double wrong last week, like the rest of the forecasting world. That leaves us at 5-3 straight up and 4-4 vs. the spread.

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