Social media platforms Facebook and Twitter are more than a decade old. That seems like a reasonable amount of time to have identified the potential pitfalls of each.
Yet as a recent rash of sports controversies has shown, age has been a multiplier of problems in some ways, rather than the opposite.
Younger athletes who are only just now coming to prominence are part of the first generation to grow up on social media. And while many athletes leverage it as a means to advance their careers, build brands, or connect with fans, early missteps taken before they were professionals in the limelight have also become magnified.
One notable recent example was Josh Hader, a 24-year-old relief pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers. Shortly before Hader made his debut in the All-Star Game on July 17, a group of racist, homophobic, and generally offensive tweets that Hader penned in his high school days began circulating on the Internet.
MLB players Sonny Gray, Trea Turner, and Sean Newcomb also joined a growing list of athletes, including NBA player Donte DiVincenzo and NFL first-round pick Josh Allen, who tweeted hateful remarks in their past.
Responses from those outside the clubhouses have been mixed. Although Hader received a standing ovation from Brewers fans in his first appearance after his tweets were recirculated — something that itself generated debate — others have condemned the tweets.
“I don’t have a tolerance for it,” ESPN baseball commentator Jessica Mendoza said. “Having two boys, I’m just really huge that regardless of who you are now, and what you meant then, I don’t think the messaging can be that it’s OK because you were young or you didn’t know.”
Athletes such as Allen have responded by disavowing the old tweets as not representative of who they are now.
“I’m not the type of person I was at 14 and 15 that tweeted so recklessly,” Allen told ESPN.
Despite Allen’s tweets surfacing before the NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills selected him seventh overall, and received criticism for his past decision-making.
“You don’t have to be an adult to learn right from wrong,” wrote Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley. “Children do it every day. Millions of high school students are on Twitter and don’t post the garbage Josh Allen did.”
What these controversies also reveal is an entire system still grappling with — and reacting to — social media.
Hader was quickly ordered by Major League Baseball to get sensitivity training and participate in diversity initiatives. Yet the disturbingly long lifespan of his tweets suggests a lack of due diligence on the part of multiple professional organizations, on top of Hader’s poor initial decision-making.
MLB will not suspend Josh Hader but says: "The Office of the Commissioner will require sensitivity training for Mr. Hader and participation in MLB?s diversity and inclusion initiatives.?— Tom (@Haudricourt) July 18, 2018
Drafted and signed by the Orioles in 2012, Hader was then traded, first to the Astros and then the Brewers. Before making his MLB debut in 2017, he played for nine different minor league teams. None of those teams ever vetted Hader’s social media. Nor did his agent.
This is exactly what Kevin DeShazo, founder of Fieldhouse Media, does for a living. DeShazo’s company works primarily with high school and college teams to show both the advantages and challenges of social media. His presentation occasionally includes a display of just how quickly an athlete’s old tweets can get them in trouble.
“I’ll find the most inappropriate tweets from whatever school I’ll be at,” said DeShazo, “and say, ‘I don’t know you, I don’t follow you, I didn’t get a list of your Twitter handles from the administration. I found these in five minutes for free. Now imagine you’re a pro athlete. That can be game over.’ ”
Came across an awful Twitter account today. Shame the kid was a really good player...On to the next one...get a clue!— Coach Justin Stepp (@coachjstepp) January 8, 2016
One proactive approach for teams and athletes is what DeShazo calls a “social media audit.” A simple search, taking only a few minutes, can reveal offensive and potentially ruinous past activity.
This has taken on more urgency, and player agents have recently begun in-depth searches of their clients’ old tweets.
The Red Sox recently sat players from across the entire organization, telling them to audit their social media, the Globe’s Nick Cafardo reported.
Boston College’s athletic department engages with student-athletes about their social media, though it varies from team to team.
But even a scrupulous review of old tweets isn’t enough sometimes, as Allen discovered. The Bills quarterback said he deleted offensive tweets months before the draft, yet they resurfaced hours beforehand.
“Somebody knew what they were doing,” Allen told USA Today. “It’s out there, it’s my fault. I can’t blame anyone else for my own mistakes.”
Patriots rookies, as might be expected on a team coached by Bill Belichick, are aware of the situation.
“You have to be professional about that now,” said rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson. “Everybody’s watching.”
And Jackson’s circumstances — he was undrafted — are indicative of an evolving NFL.
The NFL now offers an annual Rookie Transition Program that educates all first-year players — drafted or not — about how to become a professional. This includes a section on social media. Previously, the Rookie Symposium included only high draft picks.
The NFL Players Association also offers a program called Pipeline to the Pros that reaches out to college athletes, educating them on basic aspects of being professional.
Of course, not every athlete’s journey to becoming professional is the same. For Major League Soccer players, their careers can launch far sooner than counterparts in the NFL because of age requirements in football.
Diego Fagundez of the Revolution debuted as a professional in 2011 at the age of 16, yet he has sailed a smooth course on social media.
“When I was in high school, it would be one of those things where I knew what I could say and what I couldn’t say,” said Fagundez, noting that being in a professional environment helped. “I learned from everybody else. I definitely had a couple of role models like Shalrie Joseph and Matt Reis and others who would always be there.”
As the example of Fagundez illustrates, the more direct view of a solution to ongoing social media controversies is simply showing more maturity at a younger age and being held accountable.
“There needs to be a message that this language, that using things to bash gay people, people of color, women, it’s not OK,” said Mendoza. “I would say that to my 8-year-old, and guess what? He would be punished.
“Whether or not at the time you realized you were making a mistake, it’s not tolerable, knowing that, gosh, I wasn’t perfect either in high school, but I would have hoped I would have faced consequences for offending other people in a very hurtful way, which is what those tweets did.”Hayden Bird can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @haydenhbird.