Boise State's Chris Petersen Bans Twitter, Ignites 21st Century Debate
"It's just a distraction that we just don't really need to have right now. There's plenty of time in their lifetime for Twitter," Petersen said.
While Twitter has taken over the communication universe, most head coaches haven't reacted to the change. Founded in 2006, Twitter now carries 65 million tweets a day. A small percentage of those overall tweets represent athletes, but every team in America now has multiple players tweeting.
Only college sports haven't kept up with the rush of communication data flowing from their players' heads before the eyes of millions of people. Head coaches are like out-of-touch parents who don't quite understand the newfangled gadgets their kids are using. That's surprising given the control freak persona that governs big-time coaches.
Most head coaches have the fall practice schedule set months in advance, shut down that practice to avoid prying-eye stories that they don't like. They script play calls weeks in advance, may keep certain players, often freshmen, from talking to the media all year and then allow any member of the team the right to communicate at any hour of the day with as many people as are interested in hearing what they say.
What part of that control-freak equation doesn't make sense? It isn't surprising that Petersen kept his team from using Twitter for the season. What's surprising is that it's taken this long for a coach to act. Yep, Petersen is the Tweeting canary in the coal mine, alerting older coaches to the newest threat in their midst.
At its baseline level, the move to restrict player use of Twitter is a method of narrative control. He who controls the flow of information controls the story. And make no mistake, coaches want to control the story because it reinforces their power.
The fewer people who can write about a team during a season, the easier it is to control the storylines. Crack a whip and everyone, from beat writer to long snapper, falls into line lest his access or playing time be restricted. Major college coaches have become totalitarian dictators in this respect, every bit as concerned with shaping public opinion as they are with winning football games.
Unvarnished player commentary throws a wrench into that equation; the players are wild cards, the unblocked man on an otherwise well-designed play. How can a coach know for months that he's practicing from 3-5:30 on August 14 and not know until five minutes after the fact that a player just commented on his role in the new wildcat formation on Twitter?
The last thing a coach wants to be doing the chaotic week of a big game is responding to what one of his players said on Twitter. Because that's exactly what Twitter is in the eyes of head coaches like Peterson, one gigantic flashing bulletin board.
So why haven't more coaches moved to restrict players from Twitter?
Because most head coaches don't yet understand social media or the massive audience that is consuming that social media. It's a different generation than their own. Megadonors aren't asking them about Twitter at booster meetings. Yet one minute after a player posts something unique on his Facebook status, it's posted on the team message boards and analyzed by anonymous fans.
The same is true of Twitter. So far, the saving grace for players has been that much of their postings have not crossed over to the general fan base. Your average 58-year-old trucker who is a diehard Ohio State fan doesn't follow the top Buckeye players on Twitter ... yet. But he will.
At least Chris Petersen doesn't face the ultimate hypocrisy, a coach who tweets all season while not allowing his players to do the same. While Petersen has an official Twitter account, it doesn't appear that he's ever Tweeted anything. You can see his page here. But what about coaches who are actively Tweeting? Can they possibly restrict what a player can say while continuing to utilize the medium? Just wait until that controversy arises,and it will, the latest coach to embrace say as I do, not as I do, morality. Paging Rick Pitino.
This conflict between information and control offers a vivid illustration of the constantly shifting front lines of sports and modern communication. No coach is more powerful than a college football coach, no player is more powerless than a college football player. Can Twitter offset that power differential, tip the scales, even just a bit, into the players' favor?
That remains to be seen.
Ultimately, Twitter promises contact, answering a craving by fans to see that the players they root for are more than tackling automatons, a step outside the sports world cliche.
Meanwhile the college athletes are behaving the same as their classmates, following each other on Twitter and reading Tweets as they sit in meeting rooms. That's because they're following the lead of professional athletes, the men they aspire to one day be.
Professional athletes have taken to Twitter with a vengeance, developing their own personal fan bases; already some athletes are in the early stages of transcending their teams. You don't root for the Cincinnati Bengals, you root for Chad Ochocinco no matter who he's playing for.
In 1992, MTV brought reality television to the masses with the "Real World." Twitter is the new "Real World," an attempt to strip away the boundaries between player and fan, a window into an otherwise hidden reality.
For professional coaches, controlling the Twitter game is already out the window. They can't control what their multi-millionaires say. But for college coaches who already control virtually everything their players do?
It's a fascinating battle that's just commencing.
And, while Boise State's Chris Petersen may have fired an early shot on behalf of coaches' control, he won't be the last.
What's more, I don't think there's an easy answer about whether his action was appropriate. You can argue that Twitter raises the individual at the expense of the collective, the very anti-thesis of what a successful football team is attempting to do.
And you can also argue that controversies over postings are a distraction from winning football games. But can't you also persuasively argue that college players deserve to have lives away from the football field? Excising Twitter is a restriction of speech and a denial of individuality, an insistence that no matter what he does off the field, a football player is nothing more than a football player. Just another mind to be controlled.
Ultimately, what it tells us more than anything is this: Boise State is now a big-time football program. Such a big-time football program, in fact, that its players need to have their freedoms restricted. People care so much about the team that Boise State's players can't be as honest and accessible anymore to their fans.
In the modern communication era, information may want be free. But for college coaches like Chris Petersen, it most certainly has a cost.