When the NFL Tweets

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The most attention-getting tweet to come out of last night's Pro Bowl game -- the first that allowed players to tweet during the game's proceedings -- was a refusal to participate. Here's James Harrison, linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers:

He makes a good point. The NFL's tweet-friendly move, which included several stipulations as to how and when players were allowed to tweet, was as underwhelming as it was unprecedented. It was a gimmick in pretty much the same way that the Pro Bowl itself is a gimmick. 

But: It's an interesting gimmick. And one that speaks, actually, to the diffusive influence of social media as brands expand to include not just franchises, but the people who comprise them. 

The NFL, Grantland's Jay Caspian Kang has suggested, has a "star problem." The problem being, basically, that the NFL doesn't have many. "Twenty-two men put on helmets on Sunday," Kang notes, "and although millions of people watch them do their jobs, we don't really know 20 of those men, and for the most part we don't really care." 

From the NFL-as-a-business perspective, a problem, yes, this is. Football, like any sport, needs celebrities. And yet: As a sport, it's actually kind of antithetical to celebrity-making. Visually, the game's default orientation is the wide angle, the aerial perspective -- a mass of uniformed dudes moving, pretty much, as a mass. Which allows viewers on the one hand to appreciate the scale of the proceedings, but which also prevents them from the kind of face-focused intimacy that other sports can casually conjure. Basketball and baseball -- and, in fact, bowling and billiards and broomball -- are generally much better off than football in this respect. Familiarity and face masks tend to work at cross-purposes. 

This wouldn't be a problem -- it could, in fact, be a nice visual reminder of the value of self-effacing, clear-eyes-full-hearts teamwork -- were it not for the fact that we live in an age of Twitter. And Twitter has a way of privileging the individual over the mass. We increasingly expect more from our entertainment than imagery alone; we want personalization, and personality. It's not enough, anymore, just to watch Tim Tebow Tebowing; we want to know the guy -- not as a number or a nickname or a collection of stats, but as a person who will kneel before us off the field as well as on it. 

And so: To the extent that football is, like every televised spectacle, a series of images marketed in the Boorstinian style, NFL players -- distanced, helmeted, armored -- suddenly find themselves at a disadvantage. Quick, post-game interviews and/or quick, post-game United Way ads don't do much to convey players' personalities. And so football's star problem becomes a sales problem. 

The Pro Bowl's tweeting-while-gaming experiment offers to rectify all that by injecting players' personalities into the game as it's played, across media platforms. "This is an innovative way to further engage our fans who have an insatiable appetite for football," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy put it. And while innovative might not be quite the right word -- in the sense that "new" doesn't always equal "fresh" -- the move suggests the personality-driven path the NFL is charting, tentatively, for its players. Also known as its "brands." 


Image: Reuters.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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