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
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.
"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
Within three hours, the video had received more than 1,000 views and made its way to Twitter's "Currently Popular Twitvids."
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
Schools and conferences have widely embraced social media outlets, using them to spread the word about promotions and achievements. Coaches like USC's
But as SEC associate commissioner
Many of the plays (like an egregious personal foul call in the Arkansas-Florida game and LSU corner
"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
Earlier this week,
While watching the six-second scrum, Elliott happened to notice Clemson defender
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.