At the risk of sounding like Tom Friedman, social media has ushered in several paradigm shifts in recent years. Among them, one of the most interesting developments is the degree to which platforms such as Twitter and Instagram have served to level the proverbial playing field between the average person and a celebrity.
Virtually overnight, the universality of these social networks brought about a subtle populism; while it’s still true that Kim Kardashian is followed by millions and you can’t even get all of your friends, she now has the same chance as you do to say or post something she’ll later need to delete. And unlike you, before she does delete it three things will happen: thousands will like it, millions will see it, and at least a few news agencies will screenshot and write up a piece about it.
More or less, the issue is having the power of celebrity at your fingertips. Even 15 years ago, most of the publicly consumed statements or photographs of celebrities had an air of public relations control. Short of making an offhand comment in an interview, the likelihood of a popular public figure pulling back the curtain to reveal that they’re just as goofy as the rest of us was slim.
Being celebrities themselves, athletes are similarly not immune to the unintended consequences of trying to blend their private lives with the public forum. They may share opinions not everyone agrees with, make mistakes that draw derision, or become a little too invested in the medium itself, potentially at the expense of doing their day job.
With that being said, however, there are far too many reporter and media types whose stock reaction to any kind of foible is OUTRAGE. This calendar year alone, we’ve seen three instances where relatively innocuous social media activity on the part of athletes was blown way out of proportion and/or provoked an avalanche of strongly-worded hot takes. Let’s review.
1. Robert Griffin III’s “Likegate”
We’ve written about Robert Griffin’s downward spiral here before. This week might have been rock bottom for him, though. Not only has he now been demoted on the depth chart behind Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy, but the most passive-aggressive form of lamenting his current situation resulted in yet another firestorm of criticism that served to reinforce every real or imagined negative narrative about the former Heisman Trophy and Rookie of the Year winner.
To bring you up to speed, in the wake of his demotion after a weird preseason which included his being intentionally left in for Detroit’s defensive front seven to maul him and a concussion that allegedly wasn’t, then was, and which all looked like a ploy to end up benching him, RGIII’s Instagram account liked a post from an apparent Redskins superfan.
It contained a picture of the quarterback and a long caption, the most relevant hashtag of which stated “#ImpeachDanSnyder” in addition to generally ranting about the state of the team and its powers that be.
After all the damages, self-inflicted or not, that RGIII has absorbed over the years, this – albeit tacit – moment of what seemed like secondhand candor almost seemed refreshing. How annoying is it to hear athletes whose careers careen downward take a podium and say they “just gotta keep working hard” because “that’s the NFL; that’s the business,” as if Roger Goodell himself were threatening them with a 9,000 game suspension if they dared to speak out in any way against The Shield?
Yet, if you followed that original link you already know that RGIII handled this in the most RGIII way possible: he retracted the post, shared a new one that attempted to “set the record straight” — honestly, doesn’t he do that like once a week? — and then blamed unnamed, anonymous “interns” for the whole thing.
Robert Griffin is a player who elicits a lot of strong opinions; people love or hate him for various reasons of varying validity. The one thing that essentially no one likes about him, however, is his reflexive reach for a scapegoat. He’s a quarterback who implicitly throws his own offensive line under the bus for heaven’s sake! So, in as much as this latest episode was ultimately minor, it gave the latest bit of fodder to every person out there who sees RGIII as entitled, overrated, and just a bad teammate.
2: Pablo Sandoval’s In-Game Instagram
Pablo Sandoval is a great baseball player. Pablo Sandoval is a clutch performer who’s won three World Series titles. Pablo Sandoval is also, evidently, ignorant of one of baseball’s dumber regulations: no in-game cell phone usage.
According to MLB Standards and On-Field Operations Regulations, “Uniformed personnel, clubhouse staff and equipment staff are prohibited from using cellular phones, including any type of portable or mobile phone, laptop, texting device or similar portable equipment while on the bench, in the bullpens or on the playing field once batting practice has begun; and are prohibited from using such devices in the clubhouse within 30 minutes of the start of a game.”
It seems simple, if draconian, enough, but as we alluded to in the open, athletes and celebrities are still people. When you step away from your desk at work or school, presumably to go to the restroom or just to take a short break, you instinctively make the rounds on your phone, don’t you? Answer a quick text, refresh the Facebook feed, see what the latest posts on Instagram and Twitter are. So does Pablo Sandoval.
Unfortunately, his punishment for doing so – namely, liking a couple pictures during a brief trip from the dugout to the clubhouse during a June 17 loss against the Atlanta Braves – was being benched by manager John Farrell and, worse yet, having the trained fire and angst of every Boston-based baseball columnist and several other national ones turned on him. It’s been a long summer in Boston.
3. J.J. Watt and Zach Mettenberger’s “Selfiegate”
This one is less a scandal than the irritating perpetuation of J.J. Watt’s image as a big, macho guy whose mind never wanders away from football and who can get away with punching down at backup quarterbacks because that’s the kind of hardened, tough love advice that’ll teach the kid how to play the game the right way and avoid distractions like having a personality.
The start of all this began last season, when Titans then-rookie Zach Mettenberger posted a bunch of selfies upon being named the team’s starter prior to their Week 8 loss to Houston. Watt, upon sacking the young QB, decided to add a mock selfie to his celebration dance. Fine. Then he threw in this nonsense after the game had ended.
Let’s, to borrow from RGIII, set the record straight: in 2014, in a day and age when the President of the United States not only takes a selfie but uses a selfie stick, J.J. Watt thinks sixth-round pick, then-23 year-old Zach Mettenberger should take his job more seriously. Then again, however, Watt is the paragon of a league whose own commissioner thinks himself superior to the president.
For his part, Mettenberger managed to take a funny, light-hearted shot at Watt’s own Texans, high school football edition letterman jacket. But of course, being as Drew Magary says a “big, humorless dolt,” Watt was not amused and subtweeted Mettenberger in the most predictable way. Good thing Zach’s back on the bench!
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