It was about two years ago when Visanthe Shiancoe first saw the downside of mixing one's modern technology with the rather old-school setting that can still prevail in an NFL training camp. That's when the veteran tight end tweeted from the team's 2009 camp-opening introductory meeting in Mankato, Minn., letting the rest of the cyberworld know just how riveting he found the proceedings:
Shiancoe got the predictable blowback from that Twitter misstep, with the Vikings banning their players from tweeting in meetings and Shiancoe's Twitter stream becoming a must-read for all his new followers. But even the talkative and media-friendly Shiancoe realizes there's a right time and place for technology in an NFL setting, and a wrong time and place.
"Everything is just so accessible right now,'' he said last month at Vikings training camp. "Any and everything can be found, and found quickly. But you have to be a little more careful about what you do and what you say, because everyone's paying attention to it. After tweeting in that meeting, I'm not tweeting as much as I used to. But I still like to talk a little trash on Twitter.''
Like in the summer of 2010, when Shiancoe and Saints safety Darren Sharper engaged in a back-and-forth Twitter war, exchanging barbs and taunts in anticipation of the Vikings and Saints regular-season opener in New Orleans, a rematch of their memorable 2009 NFC title game -- won by the Saints in overtime. Sharper intimated that the Saints defense would go after quarterback Brett Favre's surgically repaired ankle in the game, and Shiancoe responded by posting a picture of Osama Bin Laden wearing Sharper's No. 42. Saints head coach Sean Payton eventually put the kibosh on Shaper targeting Shiancoe with his tweets, and the story eventually faded.
But not so with the trend toward more and more technology in NFL locker rooms. And the players I talked to about the prevalence of smartphones and iPads within the confines of the team setting say they're more aware than ever of the temptations that come with their machines.
"It can be tough, because you can always hit somebody up on Twitter, or you can hit somebody up on Facebook, or you can text them or call them,'' Shiancoe said. "Even if you don't have their number, you can still find a way to find anyone. It's a plus and a minus, a gift and a curse. You don't have to really always be with the people you're with, your teammates, and your camaraderie is probably going to slack a little bit. You just don't have to hang out as much.''
Colts tight end Dallas Clark said the no-nonsense reputation that Indianapolis has in the way it approaches its business sets the tone around the team complex (probably from Peyton Manning on down), but that players just have to be smart in how much they use their smartphones during the course of a work day.
"It is a good way to stay on top of everything and connect to the rest of the world,'' Clark said after a morning training camp practice at Anderson University, in Anderson, Ind. "But I think you can abuse it if you're watching all your favorite shows or SportsCenter on your handheld, when you should be in your playbook. That's not helping you. You better be knowing what you need to know for tomorrow's practice or the next game.
"But we still all get to hang out together, like at the lunch table, or in camp when you're in the dorm. You still get to know guys like always. But if you'd rather just hang out and text and talk with friends online, you can do that, too. Sometimes it's good if you've had enough team, you can kick back and use your technology to go be in a different world for a while. There are so many positives to technology, but it can be detrimental if you abuse it.''
Some veteran NFL players said it's all about how much leadership structure a particular team has, regarding any potential overuse of technology that might subtract from team chemistry. In most cases, veteran players say they are less likely than younger players to take part in Twitter, or be distracted by their phones, laptops, iPads or iPods.
"I think we have a really good group, and I don't think the technology takes away from what we have as a team,'' Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, a 13-year NFL veteran. "The older guys make it work. When the young guys come in, we still make sure they come to us and ask questions. We don't let them stay to themselves.''
Colts head coach Jim Caldwell is not oblivious to the reality that technology is everywhere in his locker room, and seemingly grows more omnipresent all the time. But Colts players are never allowed to bring a phone or handheld into a meeting, and he has yet to see any slippage in terms of players focusing on the task at hand. Then again, Indianapolis has made the playoffs a league-record-tying nine consecutive years, so there's no need to mess with success.
"I haven't noticed an impact it plays on our team, but I would have to think it's there, from just looking at the percentages and knowing that typically sports are just a microcosm of society,'' Caldwell said. "We have to be honest about that. I would assume that it probably has some minor effect, but I can't see it on our team. Our team's got some unity and they communicate well with one another. And they know our rules about their technology. We don't have to worry about them being a distraction.''
Perhaps football and technology have always been teammates of sorts, and we just didn't notice as much as we do today. After all, before smartphones and iPads came cellphones, beepers and video games. Players were also heavily into those once upon a time. And before that, who knows, maybe Johnny Unitas was always hogging the payphone in the Colts locker room, a privilege no one was likely in position to deny him. History might just be repeating itself, via updated gadgets.
"I don't think modern technology changes anything or takes away from your team,'' Bears receiver Roy Williams said. "Even if you're into your phone, you're only going to look at it for a minute or two, to check something, or tweet something. I'm not tweeter. I've been told it's dangerous. If I spoke my mind on there, I'd be on ESPN every day. I just don't do it.''