If Twitter is a double-edged sword, then few athletes know the sharpness of its negative edge more intimately than Will Hill. Only now is the Giants defensive back recovering from a series of 2010 tweets while he was at Florida in which he revealed a large sexual appetite, an affinity for "sour" (pungent marijuana), unfiltered restaurant reviews, and blunt medical queries. Just as Hill was declaring early for the NFL draft, his tweets were confirming rumors that, although talented enough to start for the Gators, he was less interested in this Cover 2 than this one. The former SEC All-Freshman performer went unpicked in the draft and unsigned as a free agent. Things have since turned around. He played in the Arena Football League last season and survived the cut to make the 53-man roster of the Giants this season.
Other athletes have tweeted like unattended garden hoses, but the backlash has varied. Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou was sent home from London for an ill-considered immigration joke, while Hope Solo was not disciplined for a series of tweets that criticized former U.S. player and NBC commentator Brandi Chastain. Following the Hill debacle, Florida enlisted UDiligence, a company that helps college teams monitor the social media activity of their players. Head coach Will Muschamp had worked with the Indiana-based company when he was an assistant at Texas.
"We're not a roomful of people hovering over our monitors scouring Facebook," said UDiligence founder Kevin Long, who says he currently works with about two dozen A-list schools. "We provide our technology to the athletic departments so they can monitor what their athletes are doing." This technology searches for about 400 potentially offensive words, and notifies athletics staffers [usually an assistant coach] when a player types one into a social media post. If the offending post can be taken down before the rest of the world sees it, it's $7,500-a-year well spent. UDiligence has made several such saves since it launched five years ago.
UDiligence is just one remedy for a "social paparazzi" that is wired to reveal athletes' mistweets as soon as they happen. Sites like Deadspin and The Big Lead don't troll the web looking for screw-ups; their work is usually done for them by readers who send in tips. Pro athletes are under more scrutiny than anyone, but so far no MLB, NBA, NFL or NHL team has called on UDiligence for help. "Not yet," Long said, "but we've been approached by NBA and NFL teams who are interested in looking at what potential draft picks are doing online." Long predicts that social media scans and digital searches through everything a prospect has ever posted will soon be as common as drug tests.
For now, pro teams police themselves. San Diego Chargers public relations director Bill Johnston says that third parties like UDiligence have "never been necessary." Johnston says that he and his staff "monitor players' tweets and talk to them immediately if we see something inappropriate. We've found that education and ongoing communication with our players [works best]."
The New York Jets use the same approach, says Jessica Ciccone, their communications director. Ciccone concedes, however, that "sometimes mistakes are going to be made when you're educating instead of censoring."
Buffalo Bills receiver Stevie Johnson is walking proof of that. "We've all been in those meetings with the team's social network people telling us to be careful about what you put out there, but it's hard to really get through to players," Johnson said. "When I first came into the league, they told me that over and over and I still ended up doing something."
"We all proofread [our tweets], but after that one time where it's blown way up, then you really begin to proofread."
NBA teams have smaller rosters to monitor, but Phoenix Suns vice president Jeramie McPeek, a respected innovator in social media, says that using watchdogs like UDiligence seems a bit overboard. "I've heard of those services, but when you're talking about professional athletes, they're grown men," McPeek said. "We can't control everything they do, nor do we want to."
Much of the dirty work, then, gets done by private consultancies like Lineage Interactive, who are hired by individual athletes. Anthony Rodriguez heads a team at Lineage that is spread across the globe, from L.A. to London to Beijing, monitoring the Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts of some of the world's highest-paid athletes (including the recently embattled Amare Stoudamire, who was fined $50,000 by the NBA for a Twitter direct message in which he called a provocateur a "fag"). Lineage advises clients on how to deal with tweeters who are trying to provoke them. ("Ignore this guy," they'll say, or: "Block this guy and tweet something tame that makes everyone laugh at him.")
"We can respond within 5 to 10 minutes of the incident, at the latest," said Rodriguez. "There's a little bit of secret sauce in how we stay ahead of these situations, but basically it's a human thing -- we're a network of people who are constantly looking out for our clients."
One thing Lineage does not do is "ghost-tweet" on behalf of athletes, Rodriguez says, even for athletes who are prone to diarrhea of the fingertips.
That's not to say ghost-tweeting doesn't happen. A consultant with another firm described "studying the grammar and studying [the] mind" of an NBA client so thoroughly that none of his hundreds of thousands of followers suspected a thing when a staffer began tweeting for him. "He even told me himself, 'Wow, I would have said it exactly like that.'"
"I don't understand why guys would have someone tweet for them," said Johnson, the Bills' receiver with 100,000 followers. "I am who I am, on the internet and in person. People can see through it when you're fake." The only thing Johnson says he needs help with is that pesky 140-character limit. "I'll be at 153 and I'm breaking things down, changing your to ur, and I'll finally send it and then I'll get messages back, like, LEARN HOW TO SPELL!" he said with a laugh. "I don't want to respond to that. I might ask for help with that."
Will Hill wishes he'd had a consultant. During an exile that Hill calls "the worst year of my life," he played in the Arena League, and spent months in gyms and some nights in tears. At a family funeral this spring the New Jersey native learned of a chance to work out in front of a few Giants scouts. They liked what they saw, invited Hill to minicamp, and signed him. Twenty months after his last tweet, the scarlet letter he sewed on himself 140 characters at a time is fraying with every practice rep.
"Once upon a time I didn't care," Hill said. "I learned you can't go through the world like that, with everyone thinking, 'He's a good athlete but he's a jerk.' Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way."