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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Locker room social media bad for team, good for player’s brand

Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown talks with reporters

Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown talks with reporters after practice, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, in Pittsburgh. The Steelers face the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. Credit: AP / Keith Srakocic

So the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers used a profane word to describe the New England Patriots? This alone isn’t exactly groundbreaking news, given that a good portion of the league probably feels the same way about the Patriots.

What is groundbreaking is how we learned Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s sentiments concerning the team they are playing Sunday in the AFC Championship Game. Tomlin’s star receiver, Antonio Brown, whom The Wall Street Journal has reported was getting paid $244,000 by Facebook Live to create video content, live-streamed a celebration that included Tomlin’s speech from the locker room immediately after Pittsburgh’s win over the Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs.

The streaming not only violated the team’s privacy, it violated the NFL’s social media policy, which prohibits players from using social media from a period that begins 90 minutes before kickoff and ends after traditional media interviews conclude. Brown apologized to his team, saying he wasn’t aware of the policy and adding, “I let my emotions and genuine excitement get the best of me.”

Some social media observers, however, don’t see his actions as being all that innocent.

“He wasn’t impulsively doing this,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. “Here you have someone who has been put on the payroll of Facebook to promote Facebook Live. When someone is paying you that kind of money, you are being hired to produce content, and if you want to keep that relationship going, you want to promote stuff that’s going to promote Facebook Live.

“In doing that, he let the priority of getting a lot of hits overcome the danger of breaking team and NFL rules.”

During the team’s availability on Wednesday, Brown was asked about his deal with Facebook. He smiled and responded, “Top secret.”

Brown also played coy when asked if he will leave his camera off the next time the postgame locker room door is closed.

“I guess you have to wait and see,” Brown said.

We also will have to wait and see how the NFL reacts to all this, and my thinking is that they are going to have to come down hard if they don’t want their locker rooms to devolve into a postgame reality show.

According to a widely reported memo that was distributed to teams at the beginning of the year, the fine for a club’s first social media infraction is $25,000. That sum seems laughable if Facebook is indeed paying Brown $244,000. And considering how much the exposure could help him build his personal brand, it can be seen as a fair cost of business.

This is something that has to scare the heck out of media relations directors in every sport. For athletes, the big appeal of social media is it lets them have immediate and direct and unfiltered contact with their fans. Yet those same attributes also can be a big negative, as we seem to see on almost a weekly basis.

All four of the major sports leagues require their players to go through some form of social media training before the start of the season. The Giants, for instance, give a do’s-and-don’ts list to their rookies. Among the pointers: Avoid social media after a bad loss, keep internal matters private and don’t respond to angry fans.

“My message to anyone on social media is to think twice and hit send once, and I think that’s a good place to start,” Ben McAdoo said shortly after taking over as coach.

Of course, there are examples of that not happening on a weekly basis. Last week, the Knicks’ Courtney Lee posted a picture of the characters from the movie “Dumb and Dumber’’ on his Instagram. Before he took it down, it was widely interpreted as criticism of the Knicks’ coaching staff for not starting him. And who can forget the flap over the Miami party boat picture that originally was posted to Victor Cruz’’s Instagram account?

A media relations director for one New York team said that as part of their media training, they show photos and bad tweets and talk about the resulting fallout.

“Would you want your mom to read this? Would you want your coach to read this? That’s what we tell the players to ask themselves before pushing the button,” he said.

While this is sound advice to anyone, what’s good for a team’s image isn’t always the same as what’s good for a player’s brand.

“If you want to get a million followers, you aren’t going to want to tweet just about mom’s apple pie recipes,” Thompson said.

Players have to seem edgy and unrehearsed and unfiltered. And so we have Antonio Brown breaking a league rule and the confidence of his team to build his own brand. It will be interesting to see how the NFL reacts.


Highlights of the major sports leagues’ gameday social media policies:


The use of social media by coaches, players, and other club football operations personnel is prohibited on game day (including halftime) beginning 90 minutes before kickoff until after the postgame locker room is open to the media and players have first fulfilled their obligation to be available to the news media who are at the game.


Prohibits use of electronic equipment/social media during the period beginning 30 minutes before a game and ending upon the conclusion of a game. Extensive policy also prohibits posting of sexually explicit content, profane language and displaying any content that could be viewed as discriminatory, bullying or harassing based on race, color ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, religion or other categories protected by law.


Players cannot use social media from two hours before faceoff until media interviews are completed. The policy also makes clear that players are as responsible for statements made in social media as in traditional media.


Use of cellphones and other electronic devices is banned during games. This period is defined as 45 minutes before tipoff until after postgame media obligations have been completed. Players can use social media during pregame media access.


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