The Minnesota Vikings have unusually revealed that they’ve flagged eight prospects this year for worrisome tweets they’ve sent out during and after the season, and have compiled a report on sixty or so potential rookies who caught general manager Rick Spielman’s eye with their active twitter feeds.
All 32 NFL teams are available to the media on the first two days of the combine, usually with one member of the front office and coaching staff answering questions in a presser, and then making themselves to individual members of the media shortly afterwards.
For some front offices and coaching staffs—Jacksonville and San Francisco are good examples—are fairly open and willing to talk shop to a point. National media learns a lot more about their intentions and inner workings on these days and they generally are a fairly interesting bunch.
But for the most part, teams will clam up and be profoundly frustrating and useless. Often, the Vikings are one of those teams.
This year, however, Spielman expanded on a part of the evaluation process that has perhaps been the least opaque part of the Vikings draft strategy: character.
Minnesota is well-known for their aversion to players with character concerns, and last year had one of the most restrictive draft boards in the NFL, having flagged 50 prospects for off-the-field issues before the draft. This year, it seems the process continues.
More than one general manager indicated that the 2014 draft class was one of the deepest in recent history, and a number of draft analysts have concurred. But that is in due at least in some part to the record number of underclassmen (98) who’ve declared for the draft. That, along with problems with graduating seniors, has contributed to the perception that it’s a particularly immature class, and one that warrants special attention and consideration.
As Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk points out, it is unlikely that Twitter activity will be the basis behind which a prospect is “taken off the board” and removed from draft consideration. But it could be the tipping point for an incoming rookie who’s already showing concerns, or could warrant further (unwelcome) investigation.
The NFL is notorious for its thoroughness in regards to how it investigates college players. Regional scouts will often be called equal parts private investigator and talent evaluator, and teams will often hire former Secret Service agents or federal investigators to follow up on suspicious activity. The Pittsburgh Steelers famously called in the Pittsburgh police department to get a private briefing on Dan Marino’s potential drug activity.
NFL scouts have been known to listen to podcasts that otherwise only get 50 listens simply because a prospect is being interviewed on those podcasts. They are very thorough. With the Aaron Hernandez controversy fresh in the minds of front offices, it certainly seems like it makes sense to be this rigorous.
In that sense, Twitter can private a detrimental conduit by which a college player signals his lack of fit for certain teams. For all the benefit it provides—and there are many benefits for public figures to use a unique tool like Twitter—there are certainly drawbacks, and they can manifest themselves on draft day. I do doubt, however, that they reveal something front offices would not have found anyway.
They probably won’t provide any advantages in terms of draft stock, either. No GM would move a player up the board because of his savvy social media use.
Even more, there are competing opinions on the use of Twitter at all. Head coach of the 2013 national champions in NCAA Basketball, Rick Pitino of Louisville, has harshly condemned the use of social media.
“I think technology is a great thing in many instances, and I think it’s poison in others, and for people in sports especially,” he told ESPN Radio. “It’s insulting, intellectually, to be on it.”
Of course, in-state rival and equally successful head coach John Calipari of the 2012 national champions Kentucky had the opposite opinion. “The coaches you mentioned, they know nothing about social media. Nothing. They don’t do it. They feel it’s another job,” he said to Mike and Mike in response to Pitino’s strong words. “I’m not going to hold my team back from Twitter or Facebook, but I’m going to teach them. I’m going to use it as a positive … For anybody to say, ‘Don’t do it; you’re crazy,’ I don’t know what you’re saying.”
Pitino has banned his players from using Twitter, while Calipari brings in communication professionals to teach players how to manage it better.
For what it’s worth, I think Calipari’s approach is significantly better (though a number of NFL teams, like Mike Zimmer’s former team the Cincinnati Bengals, would rather take Pitino’s approach and ban it at least during training camp). The issue with Twitter as it relates to players and NFL teams is that it gives fans (and the media) an unfiltered look into what players think. If those players think stupid things and Tweet them out, they are in for some significant trouble.
That is the issue with access. Before, players would be tightly controlled by a PR firm or the team’s media management staff. It would be difficult to get an unfettered look into their minds. But the other side of that coin is that it allows players to connect with fans on a level that they’d never been able to before.
Twitter can provide useful services to public figures that can help shape their message and who they are in the public eye, including data on which Tweets reach the most people, what gets the most buzz and how to best build their brand. Many athletes will use this to increase awareness for their various causes and charities, while others will more likely use it for marketing opportunities. Some would just rather talk with their fans.
College coaches like Calipari that encourage players to use social media responsibly are giving them a communication tool fit for a new age of access; he is increasing, rather than decreasing, his athletes’ competency in today’s world. Many college coaches provide PR courses for their players so that they can better navigate the difficulties of dealing with reporters and media. This should be seen as an extension of that.