Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Twitterati

Nothing can collectively tighten the sphincters of NFL executives and coaches like the word “Twitter”. It scares them, enrages them; it wakes them up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. The relationship between professional football and “tweeting” is as hostile as the one between Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno. Or Conan O’Brien and NBC. Or Jay Leno and David Letterman. Or Jay Leno and everyone. Take your pick.

But why does Twitter worry the NFL so much? Why does this simple, almost immature medium of social media continue to draw the ire of the NFL commissioner and his fellow minions? Well, mainly because it gives a completely unregulated and unfiltered forum to any athlete that wants it. That’s right, any athlete can start a Twitter account and immediately inform the world on what he or she is doing. With a simple status update (of 140 characters or less), your favorite offensive lineman or defensive end can tell the world about his favorite kind of Pop-Tarts or his favorite brand of fabric softener, which seems harmless at first. But at the same time, with a similar simple status update, your team’s star quarterback can tell the world how much weed he just smoked, how much he admires and envies Tiger Woods, or how much of a d-bag his fellow teammate is for liking Snuggles detergent. On Twitter, anything goes. And when you play in the NFL, America’s most popular and fan-crazy sport, with some of the most recognizable athletes on the planet, that unbridled freedom can turn ugly. Very ugly.

Need examples? Both Josh Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns and Shawn Merriman of the San Diego Chargers have been involved in some tenuous Twitter situations. Cribbs’ was over a contract dispute, Merriman’s was over a domestic dispute. Both were not something the NFL was proud of. But the number one reason why Twitter gives NFL hobnobs the heebie-jeebies? That would be Larry Johnson. Johnson is a previous Pro Bowl running back who was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs after lashing out against his coach and using a gay slur (several times), as well as lashing out against Chiefs' fans. The result? He was suspended, fined, and eventually cut by the Chiefs, all because he couldn’t keep his mout…err…fingers quiet. Johnson is the perfect example of why Twitter drives the NFL crazy, and why some coaches have actually banned their players from using it. Twitter gave Johnson the freedom to say whatever he wanted, and all he did was offend his teammates, coaches, fans, and an entire orientation of human beings. Hooray for social media.

But when talking about the NFL and Twitter, I would be remiss not to mention the crowned king, Mr. Chad Ochocinco. The 6-time Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals has become as well known for his Twitter updates every six minutes or so as he has for his outrageous touchdown celebrations. With a couple flicks of his thumbs, The Ocho can speak directly to his 700,000-plus followers (and counting), about anything and everything.

Now, one would assume that Chad on Twitter would be the NFL’s worst nightmare. Giving the league’s most impulsive, straightforward, flamboyant and opinionated player the power to speak his mind 24 hours a day certainly seems like a recipe for disaster. And yet, somehow, Ochocinco has become the poster child for how athletes and social media should co-exist.

With all the possible pit-falls that Twitter poses to athletes and celebrities, the most unique opportunity that it presents is the ability to have direct interaction with fans and other every day “commoners”. And while this can obviously have a dark-side (Larry Johnson), so many often fail to realize what a positive this can be. Luckily, Chad isn’t one of those people.

Before I go any further, I will admit that I have had mixed emotions about Chad in the past. I’ve deemed him the Benjamin Linus of the NFL. I’ve been on each side of the fence with Chad. But after this season, I have a hard time not rooting for the guy. Part of that is due to the fact that he re-dedicated himself on the field and in the locker room. Another reason is how much he has embraced his fans in the city of Cincinnati and around the country. Twitter has brought out the charitable and philanthropic side of Chad, a side that many of us probably assumed wasn’t there.

Over the past weekend, Chad has been somewhere between Cincinnati and Miami (where he grew up and lives in the offseason) on a fancy-schmancy tour bus with 10 of his newest friends. The trip is part of Chad’s Soldiers For Giving tour, a way for him to give back and help out on the way from Cincy to his offseason residence. Through his Twitter account, Chad informed his followers that he would be selecting 10 of them (5 guys, 5 girls) to join him on this weeklong tour. All they had to do was go to Chad’s website and order a “Soldier For Giving” t-shirt. That entered them into the random raffle (winners announced on Twitter) to be chosen to join Chad on his tour bus and assist him in helping out at different soup kitchens, hospitals, and shelters on the road from the Queen City to South Beach, with a little fun thrown in as well. That, by itself, is enough to make you change your mind about someone like Chad. But it was just the culmination of Chad’s season of “Twitter generosity”.

Throughout the past season, Chad has made his Twitter handle, @OGOchoCinco, a breeding ground for kindness and benevolence. In an age where most celebs and athletes give back as the figure heads of their charitable foundations (which is obviously respectable in its own right), Chad has taken a slightly different route. He still has his yearly football camp for youngsters and works through his endorsements to do philanthropic work, but he has also used Twitter to give back in a more direct way: to his fans.

Early in the season when the Bengals were struggling to sell out their home football game against the Texans, Chad teamed up with his sponsors to buy the remaining 1,200 tickets the team needed to sell in order for the game to be televised. Chad then showed up at Paul Brown Stadium on a Saturday afternoon to personally hand out those free tickets to the first 600 people that showed up (2 tickets per person). And show up they did, as hundreds of people from around the city camped out all night, waiting for a chance to grab those tickets and meet the star wideout, who made a point of talking to and shaking hands with each person who waited in line. Most of the people were die-hard fans who couldn’t afford to buy tickets in this economy. Those that didn’t come were able to watch the game from home instead. And all of it was possible, because of Chad.

It doesn’t stop there. Chad is constantly chatting with fans through Twitter, posing questions and asking for advice. He alerts his followers as to when he is getting online to play video games, just so they can play with him. He asked for ideas on a good cruise vacation, and then bought tickets for his grandma (who raised him) and her friends from church. He tweets what restaurant he’s eating at, and invites anyone who can to come along for a meal, on his dime of course. And on Friday or Saturday nights before home games, he would tweet which movie he was going to see that night and at what time, and would then buy tickets and popcorn for the first 100 people that showed up to watch it with him. A man that had previously become a pariah among the Bengals’ fanbase for trying to whine his way out of town was now treating those same fans to films like Avatar, G.I. Joe, Precious, or whatever else he felt like seeing. A man that was trying to get back in the city’s good graces was doing just that, with 3D glasses and buckets of butter and salt.

But giving back to fans in Cincy wasn’t enough for Chad. He wanted to go global (well national, but whatever). On the Saturday before the Bengals’ game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chad tweeted from the team’s Pittsburgh hotel that the first person to swing by and pick him up would be treated to a shopping spree on The Ocho. Most people probably thought he was joking. But when two Steelers fans in their early 20’s showed up (one of which brought his infant son), Chad hopped in their car and headed to the closest mall, buying each of them shoes, clothes, and whatever else they wanted. In a few quick tweets, Chad turned fans of his team’s biggest rival into fans of Ochocinco, and gave them a day they would never forget.

This was just the first of many similar ways Chad garnered new fans all across America. He took 100 people out to eat with him the day before a game in Oakland. He treated fans to another shopping spree in the Mall of America the day before the team played the Minnesota Vikings. Any time he made trips down to Miami to visit his family during the season, he always made sure to let his followers know where he was headed to eat, just in case they wanted to stop by and join him. In a world where famous people are constantly hiding their faces from the camera and holing up in their homes to avoid getting noticed on the street, Chad is tweeting his exact location to the world at all times, just in case they feel like tagging along.

But even with everything the man has done – even with the all the smiles that he has put on all of his fans’ faces – it has all been small potatoes compared to what he’s doing now. The Soldiers For Giving Tour started out as Chad trying to find a way to help the less fortunate as he made his yearly offseason trip home to Miami. It eventually materialized in to what it is now. First, Chad rented out a state-of-the-art tour bus, the likes of which Bret Michaels and his mob of skanks could only dream of. Immaculate restrooms, flat screen TV’s, WiFi service, and bunk beds for everyone, each of which also had their own personal TV. Chad footed the bill. Then he invited his 10 new friends along. He promised to provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and any snack in between. They even made an early stop at Best Buy to pick up any games or movies Chad’s “soldiers” needed for the trip. Again, he footed the bill. And after a quick stop by the Bengals locker room to pick up Chad’s Xbox, the trip really got under way.

The first stop was at Cincinnati’s Freestore Foodbank. The tour bus helped to prepare hundreds of hot after-school lunches for disadvantaged kids. Then the bus headed to Atlanta, where they stopped by the Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital. After Atlanta, the group headed to Orlando, where they worked with the Orlando Union Rescue Mission for the homeless. And you thought Twitter was worthless.

Of course with Chad, there is always some fun thrown in as well. They made the occasional stop for shopping and group activities, as well as a couple night clubs, with Chad swigging away on his usual Red Bull and Cranberry Juice (he doesn’t drink alcohol). In Orlando, the whole group got to spend some time at Disney World, and in Miami, everyone got tickets to see the Miami Heat play. Yet again, Chad took care of all the expenses.

To the shock of no one, Chad tweeted the entire trip, updating all of those that weren’t lucky enough to make it on the bus about places where they could meet up with the group. And while Chad always had a tweet about how much fun he was having, his “soldiers” couldn’t stop raving about “The Interesting One.”

I guess it’s his generosity that has surprised me more than anything” and “Chad is such a sweetie” were just a couple of the many praises that Chad’s tour members had for him. One of the father’s of a kid that Chad met with in the Atlanta hospital even talked about how misguided all of the negative talk about Chad is, and that anyone who says otherwise obviously doesn't know the man. One of the nurses talked about how much the kids loved The Ocho, stating that it probably had something to do with the fact that he’s just like a big kid himself. All of this, done by a man who simply could have bought a first class plane ticket and been home in about 4 or 5 hours time. Instead, he chose the road less traveled. Instead, he chose to make a positive difference in the lives of as many people as he possibly could.

Chad will be starring in the upcoming Pro Bowl in Miami, his 6th appearance in the NFL’s All-Star game. And yet this trip had nothing to do with catching passes or touchdown celebrations. It was about the kids in those hospitals, the hungry people in those foodbanks, the homeless people in those rescue centers, and the 10 people on that bus. One can only imagine how much Ochocinco’s work has impacted the lives of every one of those people, especially his “soldiers”, who all had to reluctantly hop on a plane and head home after their activities in Miami were through. But, once they reach their destinations, you would have to assume that The Ocho’s generosity will inspire them to do more of the same. There’s no telling how far his impact will reach. Oh, and the bill for the plane tickets? Yup, you guessed it.

The NFL has reason to be worried about its athletes using Twitter. Anytime you give a large group of well-known people that much freedom, someone is bound to abuse it and screw things up. But at the same time, the NFL should also be proud. Proud that some of its players are connecting with their fans, urging them to help out with charitable foundations or give money towards the earthquake recovery in Haiti. Proud that some of their players are using Twitter to make a difference. Chad Ochocinco is one of those players. That is what Chad now represents.

He used to be selfish. He used to be a team cancer. He used to be the top reason why NFL execs were treating Twitter like the Swine Flu. But now? Now Chad is making a difference. Now Chad is doing his best to make the world a better place…140 characters at a time.

Thanks for reading

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