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NFL embraces new world of Twitter

Rules changes are always a popular topic at the start of a new football season, and this year is no exception. But what may surprise you is the revision generating the loudest conversation among players has nothing to do with blocking, tackling or protecting the NFL's meal ticket: quarterbacks.

Instead it has to do with the league's recently amended policy to black out the use of social media platforms on game days, starting 90 minutes before the opening kickoff and ending with the final post-game media interviews. During that time players, coaches, team personnel and game operations staff are prohibited from using Twitter, Facebook, ustream and other conduits to fans.

The change was primarily due to the exploding popularity of Twitter, the free micro-blogging site where users can make unlimited -- and sometimes indecipherable -- posts as long as they don't exceed 140 characters each. According to Twitter-Athletes.com, 241 NFL players have registered Twitter pages, a number that figures to climb as more players seek to: a) have immediate and unfiltered access to fans; b) discuss topics of their choosing; c) massage their own egos; or d) all of the above.

Chad Ochocinco, the Cincinnati Bengals' playful wide receiver, has turned Twitter into his personal town hall. He has nearly 150,000 followers, which far surpasses the total for every team in the league but New Orleans. And his 7,300 posts -- or "tweets," as they're known -- have come in just over three months.

To put that into perspective, consider that New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush, the only player with more followers than Ochocinco, at nearly 190,000, had tweeted just 225 times as of Thursday night.

Players are so smitten with the relatively new social media tool that they've been known to tweet from home, the training facility, the team bus, the stadium, even the bathroom on their cell phones. Some teams have instituted policies limiting when and where players can tweet while at work, and others are in the process of developing their own guidelines; so it stood to reason that the league would jump on board with a policy of its own.

The NFL already had guidelines prohibiting the use of cell phones, computers and other electronics before and during games, and the recent amendments are considered an extension of that. Still, with so many people using Twitter it stands to reason that someone eventually will violate the new rules, right? But when?

"the (season) opener," San Diego Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie tweeted.

Cromartie is the only known player who has been fined for using Twitter. It happened during training camp when he tweeted that the food was terrible and joked that it might be the reason the Chargers failed to reach the Super Bowl the past two seasons. Club officials failed to see the humor and docked him $2,500.

League officials say they don't believe the amended policy will cause problems. Asking players and team employees to refrain from using social media platforms for roughly five hours out of a 168-hour week is considered more than reasonable, particularly when the individuals should be focused on the game at hand during that time.

Yet there have been playful discussions among players about who will be the first to violate the policy. Ochocinco, who goes by the Twitter moniker @OGOchocinco , succinctly tweeted, "not me," when asked to identify the potential culprit.

Cromartie, or @crimetime31, tweeted: "it could be anybody especially since they say people can't talk (for) us during the game or we will get fined which is BS 2 me."

The severity of the fine schedule has yet to be determined -- and probably won't be until there's an issue. Some players and social media consultants expressed concern because Twitter.com lacks a credible process for authenticating whether a page that features a player's name and image actually belongs to the player.

Erit Yellen, a former publicist who now does social media consulting, set up "verified" Twitter accounts for Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman and mixed martial artist Dan Henderson in the past couple of months, yet says she never was asked to prove their identity.

"Internally, Twitter puts the symbol up there showing that it's been verified, but there's no official process for authorizing it," Yellen said. "All I got was an, 'OK, these accounts are verified.' It just so happens that all the clients I was working with were legitimate, but they just as easily could have been fakes."

An email to Twitter.com was not immediately returned.

League spokesman Greg Aiello says the players have no reason for alarm, adding: "The NFL's security department has been successful assisting players in removing fake sites on Facebook and Twitter. Players or other NFL employees who believe they are victims of identity theft by people impersonating them on social media sites are advised to contact the NFL's security department."

He added the league would never fine a player without verifying the player or employee was involved. In fact, the NFL has been openly supportive in the use of Twitter. Commissioner Roger Goodell has an account and the league office recommended to teams during training camp that reporters be allowed to tweet during public practices.

When the amended game-day policy was announced, the league statement read, in part: "The growth of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook has created important new ways for the NFL and clubs to communicate and connect with fans. The NFL has been at the forefront of the use of new media and will continue to emphasize innovative and appropriate use of these new forms of communication."

Just not from the 90 minutes preceding kickoff to the last post-game interview.

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