Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal saluting a fan during the game...

Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal saluting a fan during the game against the Los Angeles Clippers. (Dec. 5, 2005) Credit: AP

There may be a new, mightier pecking order in the global village. From bottom up: the sword, the pen, the tweet. That's tweet as in Twitter.

Approaching its fifth anniversary, Twitter, concise by design, has become a powerful communication tool in the ever-expanding world of social media. Its influence has been varied. It has been cited as a factor in helping to topple governments in the Arab world over the spring. Closer to home, 140-character messages have become a social networking staple used effectively by those involved in politics, entertainment and sports.

Oh yes, Twitter is unfiltered and instantaneous. And as disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner learned, there is no eraser.

In the wide world of sports, it quickly has become a tool of choice for athletes, teams and leagues to disseminate information -- often well before conventional news outlets catch on. For instance: If you follow Rudy Fernandez on Twitter, you learned about his trade to the Mavericks during Thursday night's NBA draft long before the official announcement.

Twitter has proved an effective way of getting a point across. It is a marketer's dream. But it can be a nightmare as well. That athletes love it should come as no surprise.

"They may be the most susceptible of all to the lure of tweeting because of their competitive natures," says Kathleen Hessert, a North Carolina-based social media consultant who tutors on the power of Twitter as well as its do's and don'ts.

"Statistics are important in athletes' worlds," she said. "They have a drive to have the most followers."

Twitter conveniently keeps score for tweeters and offers the online statistics pertaining to number of followers for the world to see.

"Sometimes the athletes hope to get numbers by getting attention," Hessert said. "Some try to push the envelope. They have an air of invincibility. That's dangerous on Twitter."

By virtue of having helped launch Shaquille O'Neal's Twitter account, Hessert is considered one of the nation's foremost experts on the subject.

The latest statistics posted at a website called twitaholic.com has the recently retired Shaq, who had the advantage of coming to tweeting with an established larger-than-life personality, with just shy of 4 million followers. That's most among anyone involved in American sports. It ranks Shaq 28th in the world.

Shaq may be well behind top-ranked Lady Gaga's 11 million followers, President Barack Obama's 8.8 million and Brazilian soccer idol Kaka's 4.6 million, but he's well ahead of fellow U.S. athletes Lance Armstrong, who has 2.9 million, Tony Hawk (2.4 million) and Chad Ochocinco (2.1 million).

"My job is to teach clients how to best use Twitter and make themselves accountable," Hessert said. "There is a risk vs. reward of every tweet ... It's a tool, not a toy ... There are rules like don't drink and tweet ... But the best rule I have is don't tweet anything you wouldn't want your mother to read."

In other words, just be smart.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall didn't do himself any favors in May when on the night Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by U.S.

Navy Seals, he questioned al-Qaida's role in the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

While most Americans were thankful for the turn of events, Mendenhall, whom the Cowboys passed on in order to draft Felix Jones in 2008, tweeted: "What kind of person celebrates death?"

The tweet went viral. Mendenhall's followers reacted and their followers reacted and so on down the exponential line. The mainstream media picked up his comments. Besieged by a tsunami of negative publicity, Mendenhall deleted his Sept. 11 tweets from his account. He tried blogging to clarify his position. But his tweets continued to circulate in a Twitter whirlpool.

In the end, Mendenhall forfeited his endorsement contract with Champion, the athletic apparel company. There may be no statute of limitations on the ill will he created.

Reggie Bush, the New Orleans Saints running back, created a firestorm when he tweeted about the benefits for players brought by the NFL lockout. Bush followed up with a feeble "FYI last tweet was a joke!"

Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor who is director of the school's center for television and pop culture, believes one of the strongest lures of Twitter to followers is unfiltered content.

"What makes Twitter interesting is what makes it dangerous," he said. "It is amazing how long it is taking people to learn you can get burned if you put your finger on a hot stove.

"The traditional sports press release is usually vetted and revetted," Thompson said. "There is a reason for that. Now the vetting is bypassed. Sports figures, who play lots of night games, can say what's on their minds at 2 o'clock in the morning. For the traditional media who then reports what was tweeted, it has turned into a gold mine."

Teams find themselves in a Twitter conundrum.

They have found it a promotional tool. But they cringe at the notion of controversies created by 2 a.m. tweets.

"We just tell the guys to be careful," said Rich Dalrymple, the Dallas Cowboys' director of public relations. "They need to be careful of what they say about their teammates, opponents and the game. They need to be smart."

John Blake, the Rangers' vice president who oversees communications, cited Major League Baseball directives that don't allow players to tweet 45 minutes before a game, during the game and 10 minutes after. That's pretty much the same guidelines employed by other sports.

Blake, by the way, has taken to tweeting in the name of the Rangers. He offers tweets announcing lineups and what color uniform the team will wear the next day.

"If I don't do it on a given night, I hear from people who want the information," he said. "It's amazing how many people are interested in the color of a jersey."

Policing Twitter is more common in college athletics.

A sampling: Boise State football coach Chris Peterson and New Mexico State football coach DeWayne Walker have taken to banning players from in-season tweeting. Mississippi State basketball coach Rick Stansbury had a similar rule, as did former Missouri basketball coach Mike Anderson, who next season will call Arkansas home.

Mark Cohen, sports information director at TCU, which has evolved into an under-the-microscope national power in football, said Twitter and other social media have changed his message to Horned Frog athletes.

"At the old media training sessions, I used to tell the athletes what would be best to say and not say in a television, radio or newspaper interview," Cohen said. "Now Twitter and Facebook are at the forefront of the discussion on do's and don'ts.

"Our general policy is to tell the kids to be careful," he said. "Be conscious of what you put out there. Be careful of language and content and how the team may be preparing for a game. Don't say anything about an opponent or your Saturday night plans ... I remind them that they can't be just normal college students away from the game. They have to think as if the jersey is always on."

TCU athletics does no official social media monitoring, relying instead on the eyes and ears of athletic department employees and the athletes themselves to report transgressions.

Hessert, the social media consultant who crisscrosses the nation speaking to the likes of professional leagues, college conferences, athletic departments, coaches' conventions and NASCAR teams, says there is a need for big-brother monitoring in the big business of sports. Among her oldest clients is Texas football coach Mack Brown, who she says she has worked with him since his days at North Carolina.

She has set up a computerized system -- buzz manager -- to track every mention of a team in the traditional media as well as on Twitter and in the social networking world.

"In some cases it may be like trying to unscramble the eggs after they are in the frying pan," she said. "But that's our world today."

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