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Athletes’ social media are two-way street

By Jim Caltagirone

For the Mirror

Thanks to the proliferation of social media outlets, anyone with an opinion, comment or observation can share it with everyone who utilizes their platform of choice.

If you are a famous athlete, there’s a good chance that a post deemed controversial will transcend one platform and spread throughout all forms of mass communication.

That was the case recently when LeBron James used his Twitter account to comment on the fatal police shooting of a 16-year-old girl in his home state of Ohio.

His tweet, YOU’RE NEXT #ACCOUNTABILITY, was accompanied by a photo of the officer involved in the shooting.

One interpretation of the tweet was that it implied that the officer would be arrested, tried and convicted like Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty of two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.

James deleted his original tweet on the shooting because he noted in a subsequent tweet that it was “being used to create more hate.”

Athletes commenting publicly on social issues is not a recent phenomenon. Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were prominent social activists in the 1960s.

Jackie Robinson was once described as “a sports hero who became a civil rights activist.”

The difference today is that an athlete’s outreach to a global audience is instantaneous.

The content of the message and the timing of its release are solely at the discretion of the athlete. Unless one is sought, there is no editor to weigh in on the subject, tone and potential consequences.

What’s also discretional, however, is how much attention a social media user chooses to devote to the posts.

Following someone on Twitter is not an obligation like filing taxes or getting the car inspected. It seems that we live in an era when everyone possesses an authoritarian voice that must be heard.

And no one is clamoring harder for relevancy than the professional athlete.

Nearly a decade ago, a columnist for bleacherrport.com considered the merits of athletes establishing a social media presence and concluded, “If the player wishes to express a controversial side of himself to the public, he must be prepared to deal with any fallout that occurs — up to and including fans pushing back.”

The passage of time has not reduced missteps in messaging of 280 characters or less.

Online searches produce a bounty of returns related to apologizes by college and professional athletes for tweets that were deemed by public reaction to be insensitive, inflammatory or irresponsible.

Not long ago, there was a focus on the athlete as a role model. Now, athletes are increasingly embracing the role of social commentator, which has traditionally been filled by academics, politicians, syndicated columnists and assorted experts.

Summarizing a University of Florida town hall on athletes and their social media presence, a journalism student wrote, “If freedom to speak on pertinent issues is only afforded to a select few, then we are contradicting the democratic principles upon which this country was founded on.”

In this context, LeBron James has every right to tweet about any subject of interest to him. Everyone else has the right to like his tweets, share them, or denounce them.

No matter one’s point of view, the actions of social media posters and users alike should reflect one overriding consideration: a commitment to civility.

Jim Caltagirone is a regular contributor to Voice of the Fan. He resides in Altoona.

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