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Social media empowering fans to impact game like never before

On the afternoon of Oct. 31, I was sitting in the Autzen Stadium press box prior to that night's USC-Oregon game, checking my Twitter feed, when the following tweet popped in from a user named @hometimrunner.

"Did you see Brandon Spikes trying to poke out [Washaun] Ealey's eyes on the play before UGA's 2nd TD?"

I had not. With the outcome of the Florida-Georgia game long since decided, I'd stopped paying attention to the broadcast playing on a nearby television.

But Shawn Walsh was still watching. From his home in Hershey, Pa., the 22-year-old recent college grad noticed Spikes' attempted eye-gouge at the end of an otherwise innocuous running play and grew incensed CBS' announcers had not mentioned it.

"It was the typical announcer not pointing out an egregious act," said Walsh, a UConn fan with no rooting interest in the game. "So I rewound it, recorded it and put it on Twitter."

About 20 minutes after that first Twitter mention, @shawnpwalsh included a link to his video in this tweet sent to myself and ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach: "Video of dirty Spikes play that you've been getting some mentions of from your followers." Upon watching the play, I could tell immediately it would soon become a news story. I re-tweeted it to my 6,000-plus followers, many of whom then re-tweeted it themselves.

Within three hours, the video had received more than 1,000 views and made its way to Twitter's "Currently Popular Twitvids." The Orlando Sentinel later embedded it on its Web site. The video -- which would eventually garner more than 19,000 views -- helped bring national attention to a disturbing act that had gone undetected not only by Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson, but also by a press box full of reporters covering the game in Jacksonville.

Walsh was hardly the only viewer to capture the image (more than 30 videos of the play -- many of them much clearer -- eventually made their way to YouTube), but Twitter greatly accelerated the speed with which it spread. Two days later, Spikes was suspended (originally for just the first half) of the following week's Vanderbilt game, busted in part by an astute viewer in Pennsylvania.

"Bringing it to people's attention was important," said Walsh. "That's part of what Twitter does -- break news immediately as it happens."

With the rise of social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, college football fans have become empowered like never before. Their impact on the 2009 season has gone far beyond simple "Let's go, Tigers!" status updates. Several million watchdogs are using their laptops and iPhones to expose player misconduct, officiating gaffes and controversial comments that may in the past have gone unreported by traditional media.

"Fans always believed they were part of the process, but now with new media they are part of the process," said David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute. "They've gone from being engaged by face painting and supporting their team to being influential activists in getting the word out not just about what's going on with their team, but also with rival teams."

Schools and conferences have widely embraced social media outlets, using them to spread the word about promotions and achievements. Coaches like USC's Pete Carroll and Stanford's Jim Harbaugh are Twitter regulars. The Mountain West uses the site to tout its teams' latest rankings and accolades. The Chick-fil-A Bowl provides live updates from its scouts attending games.

But as SEC associate commissioner Charles Bloom has found out this season, the crumbling wall between fans and participants can also create p.r. nightmares. Starting with a costly excessive celebration call against Georgia's A.J. Green in an Oct. 3 game against LSU, Bloom, the conference's media relations director, has dealt with near-weekly officiating controversies in the league's most visible games and an ever-growing legion of conspiracy theorists who believe the league is protecting co-leaders Florida and Alabama.

Many of the plays (like an egregious personal foul call in the Arkansas-Florida game and LSU corner Patrick Peterson's waved-off interception last week against Alabama) were replayed and debated during the game broadcasts and would have garnered coverage regardless. But the ability of fans to post and review the clips on YouTube, then disperse and debate them on blogs and on Twitter, has helped turn such controversies into far bigger stories than they were in the past.

"Whether information is factual or not, you're having to fight against both reality and perception based on what's being written in the blogosphere and social media," said Bloom. "The question for us is, how do we become more proactive and get our voice ahead of the issues? It's become a full-time job unto itself to maintain the conference's image and protect its brand in the social media realm."

None of the calls in question truly cost a team a game, like Colorado's fifth down against Missouri in 1990 or Oregon's phantom onside kick recovery against Oklahoma in 2006. Yet Bloom acknowledges that the level of outrage among fans and the ensuing media coverage prompted the SEC to take public action (including its first public suspension of an officiating crew) in matters it may previously have addressed behind closed doors.

"Social media is today's instant replay," said Kathleen Hessert, a media-training consultant whose company, Sports Media Challenge, counts the ACC, Conference USA and the Big Ten Network among its clients. "If something wrong happens and blows over, an entity like a conference or school can say 'We'll deal with it quietly.' But with social media, it's becomes almost impossible. When fans' voices become so loud the entities can't ignore it, it provides a different component to their decision-making."

Earlier this week, Bud Elliott, founder of the popular Florida State blog Tomahawk Nation, was reading a "film review" of last Saturday's FSU-Clemson game on the Clemson blog Shakin' The Southland. Contained within that site's 3,600-word, drive-by-drive game review were 13 embedded videos and links to several others, one of which was a YouTube clip (shot by another Clemson fan site, Tigernet.com) of a play in which Tigers safety Rashard Hall recovered a fumble by 'Noles running back Chris Thompson. Elliott clicked on it. "I was curious to see how [Thompson] was holding the football," said Elliott.

While watching the six-second scrum, Elliott happened to notice Clemson defender Andre Branch grab FSU lineman David Spurlock's facemask from behind and jerk his head backward. He believed he saw Branch "re-grip and go for the [eye] gouge," a la Spikes. (Note that the video isn't nearly as conclusive as the various Spikes replays.) Elliott, a 2007 Florida State grad and current Alabama law student, posted the clip on his site Tuesday and sent a tweet to four national sportswriters, among them SI.com's Andy Staples. Both he and The Sporting News' Chris Litmanposted the clip to their blogs and called for Branch to be suspended.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney disagreed with their assessment, saying Wednesday: "I've seen worse in my 11 and 10-year olds' games ... I think we are a hypersensitive country. Start dissecting a football game, the next thing you know you're going to see a lot worse than that."

It's true. Football by nature is a violent sport, and unfortunate acts like those Spikes and Branch committed occur far more often than get reported (much like officiating mistakes). Or at least they used to. With nearly every game in the country now televised, and with the ability to rapidly distribute images via YouTube and Twitter, almost no transgression, no matter how subtle, goes unnoticed.

"It's the new reality," said Carter. "There is going to be a whole new level of Monday morning quarterbacking around sports."

It remains to be seen whether that's a good thing.

The Spikes incident, much like the officiating controversies involving Florida and Alabama, riled fans of all affiliations (like Walsh) due to the high-profile nature of the participants and high stakes of the games. The Branch incident, on the other hand, took place in a game between a 5-3 team and a 4-4 team, and came to light through the efforts of an obviously partisan watchdog (Elliott).

Traditional media have long played an important role, both in sports and society, in exposing wrongdoings and effecting change, and social media has the ability to widen such coverage exponentially. However, as Carter said, "You hope that [fans] are watchdogs and not just a 'gotcha' crew."

Perhaps we've reached a point where college football Saturdays will now be followed by an inevitable rash of vengeful fans combing through game tapes in search of validation for their aggrieved team over a missed call or some incriminating transgression by a rival player. Maybe some fan will soon hit the jackpot and help get a player of an upcoming opponent suspended.

Bloom, for one, sees a more aggressive side emerging to the sport to counteract those possibilities. He believes by this time next season most schools and conferences will employ staffers fully dedicated to monitoring social media in and after games and defusing potentially toxic situations.

"The college sports p.r. field will have to learn a lot from the political p.r. field," said Bloom. "[In politics], you're always looking for an edge. You're looking at polls, you're trying to change minds every day. I could see having a person on social media advocating the positive points of what went on in that game, and seeing what other people are posting and defending your program. If someone posts a video that's negative to your program, you're going to have to come up with a plan in the social media realm to show the other side."

On Dec. 5, I, along with several hundred other reporters, will file into the Georgia Dome press box to cover the much-anticipated SEC title showdown between the current top two teams in the country, Florida and Alabama. As I've done most of this season, I'll be darting my attention between the action on the field and the latest activity on TweetDeck.

In the event I miss something, Twitter Nation will surely alert me.

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