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NFL labor negotiations might include social media issues

By
Alex Butler
All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown described his release from the Oakland Raiders by sharing a private conversation with coach Jon Gruden on social media. File Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI
All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown described his release from the Oakland Raiders by sharing a private conversation with coach Jon Gruden on social media. File Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo

Oct. 15 (UPI) -- Social media use is expected to draw greater attention than ever before during collective bargaining agreement negotiations between NFL owners and the NFL Players Association.

Huge social media followings help players build personal brands for life, but the platforms also have become a distraction and caused locker room rifts, despite players being trained about proper use of communicating thoughts and ideas.

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"I think we could see things like conduct detrimental [league rules] expanded to things like social media," former Miami Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum said. "I think those things are interesting and are going to be a more collectively bargained issue.

"And certainly we are seeing the way the game is consumed with Amazon and Twitter. I think those things will become more pronounced at the collectively bargained level than they have in the past."

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Violations of the league's conduct policy result and fines and suspensions. Popular players sometimes use the platforms to voice their displeasure with contracts, teammates and more, while teams try to find ways to financially capitalize on their celebrity clout.

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A high bar

"I think its worth a challenge to take up [in the collective bargaining agreement], but even with that, clubs would have to prove that it is conduct detrimental. I think that's a high bar when you start talking about use of social media," former Arizona Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said.

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Graves said he thinks some control related to social media should be exercised, particularly about medical information and front office decisions.

"As a former GM, I question a lot of things that come out that used to be things we could control in terms of roster moves and what happens with coaching decisions," Graves said. "You would rather want to release those things on your own timetable rather than reading about it in many instances before meetings are even over."

Former NFL star Antonio Brown, for example, digitally documented his time with multiple teams this year before finding himself out of the league and in legal trouble, exemplifying the complex nature of social media popularity.

"It will without a doubt [be a big topic during CBA negotiations]," Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice said. "It's a way for you to voice your opinion, but I'm sure it's going to be something the league is going to address.

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"We didn't have that distraction back in the day. I think it takes away from the game of football. You have guys with their lives around social media."

No modern technology

Rice's teams didn't lack personality during the San Francisco 49ers' dynasty years in the 1980s and '90s, but no faces were buried in smartphones and no players live-streamed video on social media from the locker room. The technology didn't exist then.

Brown digitized his rocky tenures with the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots, before being released amid allegations of sexual assault. He continues to share his trials and tribulations on the platforms, despite not being on a team. That documentation has included posting a private conversation he had with Raiders coach Jon Gruden, posting fine letters from the team and getting into heated exchanges with NFL players, who could be future teammates.

Brown was fined while with the Steelers after live-streaming a locker room speech from coach Mike Tomlin. Bears running back Tarik Cohen also recently live-streamed from his locker room, accidentally filming a naked teammate and broadcasting it to his virtual audience. Incidents like Cohen's occur on a yearly basis and typically result in fines.

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Similarly to Brown, former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Taco Charlton used social media in an attempt to get to a different team. Charlton wrote "free me" on a Sept. 16 tweet, referencing his status with the Cowboys. Charlton deleted that tweet, but was waived two days later.

"Trust me the last thing I want to do is to have to go to social media to get what I want so I can play football again," Charlton tweeted an hour after deleting his original post.

New contract

Jacksonville Jaguars star Jalen Ramsey also has used social media to voice his desire for a new contract and was suspended by the team in 2018 after threatening "war" with the media. While many social media posts are deleted moments after being posted, they are typically preserved with screenshots, meaning players can never truly take back what they submit to cyberspace.

Rice said he doesn't have a problem with social media when used positively to communicate with fans. But he said it can cause problems in locker rooms if teams don't have great leaders. Football fans saw that with Brown when he was disgruntled during his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, getting into back-and-forth Twitter battles with current and former teammates.

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Platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube have brought athletes closer to fans than ever, but they also allow athletes to control their own narrative instead of relying on reporters.

Rice -- who is promoting a contest and YouTube series for Rice-A-Roni -- said players now control their own destiny, unlike when owners paved players' paths during his career.

"Look what happened with 'A.B.,' Rice said of Brown. "For him to get out of Pittsburgh, he had to cause problems there. He wanted to go to the Patriots, but there was no way Pittsburgh would trade him to the Patriots, so he had to go a different route."

An exception

Former front-office executive Tannenbaum thinks Brown's situation is an exception, not the norm. But he also thinks social media is creating another dynamic when it comes to front office decisions. He said public posts from players can "exacerbate situations," when their content is typically reserved for private and confidential conversations between teams and agents.

"I don't think all players can indiscriminately get out of situations," Tannenbaum said. "When you consider there are 53 players on every team, I think the Antonio Browns of the world are a little aberrational. With that said, I think social media does create another dynamic where in the past the media controlled the news cycle.

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"In certain circumstances, social media can be a variable in terms of a player having a more direct sort of methodology to communicate his feelings."

Brown's popularity increased during his rocky off-season and regular season. His following grew every week during the period of his release from the Raiders and the Patriots, climbing nearly 300,000 followers from Sept. 1 to 28, according to Twitter.

Brown is among several high-profile players who have had personal film crews document their lives on and off the football field, joining Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and other NFL stars.

Personal promotion

The demand for personal promotion is increasing, prompting NFL franchises to educate their players and staffs about best practices while also trying to figure out how they can collaborate with players and cash in on digital data.

For now, teams around the league turn to outside help for cyber advice as fans and players crave a connection.

"I believe there are some clubs that are fantastic about recognizing that social media has changed the way we communicate and how we control the narrative," said Carrie Cecil, chief executive of Anachel Communication and Social Media Sports Management.

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"An example of that is in a crisis where something is going wrong, we used to have 24 hours to respond. Today, we have 120 seconds," he said.

"So it's important for our brand ambassadors to understand the power of their voices to millions of people. There are clubs that do that better than others."

Cecil's company works as the trainers and educators in professional athletics for social media use. It helps about half of the teams in the NFL, teaching them the best practices and showing players how social media can help or hurt their careers.

Costly tool

Cecil said the biggest mistake players make on social media is not recognizing it as a tool that can "cost them money or make them money." Social media training in the NFL still is in its "infancy" after about three years.

"Over time, we will see more teams with a traditional public relations staff and more teams trying to fill out social media content," front-office executive Tannenbaum said. "I think it will become more of the more normal. Players are obviously growing up with it now."

Cecil's team simultaneously educates teams about social media laws and how to increase revenue. She says players are the No. 1 brand ambassadors for football franchises. But Cecil said she doesn't know if general managers -- the front office role often tasked with hiring, firing and penalizing players -- know the laws when it comes to how they can discipline athletes in regards to social media.

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"These players have more power, more followers and more influence than sometimes the teams they work for," Cecil said. "If I'm a progressive front office person or player engagement guy, I'm wondering how do I educate my player to not only represent our brand, because they have a short window to make revenue ... But also how does it work for both [player and team]?"

"If we can work together to grow the brand and increase fan engagement, sponsorship dollars, broadcast rights and all of those things, it's a win-win."

'Vicious cycle'

Longtime NFL coach Jeff Fisher approves of social media use. He said there often are "extenuating circumstances" for players when there is pressure placed on them to say something on social media, but that can become a "vicious cycle." Fisher recently increased his usage of social media to "set the record straight" after seeing untrue tweets.

"One bad decision on social media can have an impact on not only the sender's career, but also somebody else's career," Fisher said. "We have free speech, but we also have such things as libel and slander. If you put something out there, it had better be true."

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Fisher worked with Cecil during his time with the Los Angeles Rams. His 20-year tenure as a head coach began before most social platforms were conceived and lasted through the height of their popularity.

"I've been out [of NFL coaching] for a couple of years, but I would welcome the challenge of explaining to players that once you hit send, you can't get it back -- and to be mindful of that which you are putting out there," Fisher said.

Social media might be another scale weighing those prospects to determine if they are the right fit for a franchise during the NFL Draft process. Fisher's past draft meetings resulted in grading players based on physical ability and intelligence, not digital footprint.

"You didn't talk about his social media platform or grade him on a scale of 1 to 10," Fisher said. "I'm not so sure social media is not becoming another factor you have to add to the list."

While players have figured out how to directly address fans, NFL teams are working to collaborate with the stars in a number of ways.

Working together

"Athletes have the freedom to say whatever they want to say. What's different now is that athletes have an independent megaphone to promote their ideas. That wasn't there 10 or 15 years ago. So you are seeing a shifting of the power," said Darin W. White, the executive director of Samford University's Center for Sports Analytics.

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The Patriots lead the NFL with 4.5 million Twitter followers, but many players have even greater numbers. Russell Wilson has 5.3 million followers. J.J. Watt (5.2 million, Aaron Rodgers (4.3 million), Drew Brees (3.1 million), Larry Fitzgerald (2.4 million) and Robert Griffin III (2.2 million) are among the most-followed football stars.

White said we are now seeing more "intentionality" from athletes starting at a young age. In the past, teams and brands helped to make athletes famous, but White said prospects are now successful at building their own brands before the pro stage.

The rise of personal videos and behind-the scenes footage from athletes can be attributed to the younger generation's "hunger for authenticity," according to White. He said "smart" NFL teams leverage their athletes for their own social media channels.

The Center for Sports Analytics advisory board consists of some NFL personnel, including Atlanta Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay, as well as a Nike executive. They advise NFL teams and large companies about how to use social data to understand fans and create engaging content.

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The center also helps teams determine current and former players who are key influencers within their fan base to help build engagement.

Bridging a gap

The NFL Players Association attempted to bridge that gap by renewing its five-year partnership in 2018 with Opendorse, an athlete marketing platform that connects sports stars with brands on social media. The partnership capitalizes on the following of more than 8,000 athletes, providing them with ready to share posts that are professionally manicured.

"Fans hunger for the sense of the raw person, they don't want an airbrushed version," White said.

Formal talks on the collective bargaining agreement resumed briefly last week, but there was no major breakthrough hinting at completion of a new agreement that would take effect in 2021.

The possibility of an extended regular season schedule and players getting a larger share of the revenue without adding regular season games are among the topics to be addressed at the negotiations. The talks are expected to resume after the NFL's fall meetings, which are set for Tuesday and Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

If all does not go well during labor negotiations, NFL owners could impose a lockout if the current agreement expires without a new deal in place. The NFL Players Association sent agents an email in May, telling them to advise their clients to plan for a work stoppage.

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"You don't have timelines in CBA negotiations," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Oct. 6 on NFL Network. "We've had a lot of discussions over several months. They continue. We'll see, we'll keep working on it."

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