Watch Live: The Washington Ideas Forum 2014

When the NFL Tweets

nfl_pro_615.jpg

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.

Presented by

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.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Technology

Just In